Martyna Majok’s Sanctuary City pulls no punches. From this powerful drama’s first moments, we are plunged headlong into the traumas that inflect the daily lives of undocumented immigrants. For Majok’s two teenage protagonists living in post-9/11 Newark, the situation is especially harrowing. Their countries of origin are the stuff of myth: the U.S. is the only home they have ever known.
Every move they make in their host country involves a hierarchy of narrow but consequential choices. Report domestic abuse to authorities and you risk being investigated for overstaying your visa. Apply for a better job and you may be exposed. Even loving another human being is fraught with danger.
Majok strikes a brilliant balance between intimacy and universality. During a searing, staccato first act composed of short bursts of interaction, rhythmic repetition, and a bit of time travel, the teenagers, identified as simply B and G in the program, reveal intensely personal and singular stories. We discover just how warped their lives have become due to their uncertain status. Yet we never learn their names or where they came from. They are among the hundreds of thousands of Dreamers who have lived their entire lives in America but have no right to stay.
B (Hernán Angulo) is a high school senior whose mother decides to return to her home country, virtually abandoning him in their Newark apartment. His neighbor and classmate G (María Victoria Martínez) is beaten routinely by her mother’s lover. The two huddle in B’s apartment, often spending the night together in awkward, unconsummated affection. They plot how they will explain G’s absence from school while her bruises heal. Will it be chickenpox this time, or something shorter, like a cold?
The two provide sanctuary for one another until G gets lucky. Her mother is approved for naturalization and the status extends to her daughter. Suddenly G’s world opens up. What was impossible to imagine yesterday — including higher education — becomes a tantalizing possibility today. When G takes off for Boston and a new collegiate life, she promises to help B achieve his dreams as well.
The see-sawing between these two teens, pulled and pushed by chance, opportunity, and the machinery of an unseen but looming government bureaucracy that dictates their lives, sparks the electric first act of the play. From their fumbling encounters in B’s apartment to the exhilaration of prom night, the energetic, resourceful youngsters navigate a fast-changing emotional terrain that would flummox most of their elders. Angulo and Martínez more than meet the demands of their roles with their spot-on choreography and snappy transitions.
In the second act, now three years later, we meet Henry (Kim Fischer), a law student safely removed from immigrant status. The fact that he alone has a name is striking. Does citizenship grant you the right to become an individual?
The frenzy slows down as three young adults now steer through an even more complex set of circumstances. The change to a more languorous real-time pace is a big departure from the breakneck surrealism of the first hour. But Majok never suggests that her characters’ situations will resolve easily. Each finds him or herself at a critical nexus that may determine the paths of their grown-up lives.
David Israel Reynoso’s spare and effective set concentrates the action in a simple square marked out on the stage floor and overhung by a square fluorescent fixture that feels more like an interrogation room than a home. The effect of the twin boxes, floor and ceiling, concentrates the energy into a small space that is enhanced by Cha See’s dramatic lighting. Sound Designer Fan Zhang punctuates changing circumstances, forming an effective bridge between scenes performed without intermission.
Majok’s drama offers a vivid glimpse into the personal costs of living in limbo. A so-called sanctuary city offers no long-term solutions, even one situated just a few miles from the Statue of Liberty’s welcoming beacon.
Arena Stage’s production of Sanctuary City is presented in association with the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, with original direction by David Mendizábal and associate/transfer direction by Cara Hinh.
Running Time: One hour 45 minutes, no intermission.
Sanctuary City plays through November 27, 2022, in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, DC. Tickets (56–$72) may be purchased online, by phone at 202-488-3300 (Tuesday–Sunday, 12:00-8:00 p.m.), or in person at the Sales Office at 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, DC (on performance days, starting 90 minutes prior to curtain).
The program for Sanctuary City is online here.
COVID Safety: Arena Stage requires that patrons wear facial masks while in its theaters. Arena additionally recommends, but no longer requires, that patrons wear masks in the Mead Center’s large open spaces, such as the Lower Lobby, Grand Lobby, Molly Smith Study, and café area. Arena employees and volunteers will maintain masking in all spaces. These conditions are subject to change, and Arena continues to consult with medical professionals, monitor government best practice recommendations, and engage in industry trainings to ensure the health and safety of our patrons, artists, and staff. For up-to-date information, visit arenastage.org/safety.