“Sanctuary City” is full of surprises, rarely happy ones for the boy and girl who have grown up together — or for the audience. Martyna Majok’s challenging, intelligent play focuses on two intelligent characters with challenging lives, who care for one another, but have trouble giving each other the care they need. As in previous plays by Majok — the Pulitzer Prize winning author of “Cost of Living” is our foremost dramatist of working class immigrants in such works as “Ironbound” and “queens” — the insufficiency of their love is not due to flaws in their character, but failures of the state. “Sanctuary City” turns out to be an ironic title. The city of Newark where they live may have a policy of refusing to cooperate with the federal government’s enforcement of the nation’s immigration laws, but the place offers less refuge than heartbreak for the characters over the course of the five years in which the play takes place, because of their immigration status. Majok doesn’t even give them names; they are just B and G – suggesting that they are in effect denied an identity in this country because their families brought them here illegally when they were young children.
That has concrete consequences from the get-go. We first meet G and B when they are both 17 years old, and G knocks on B’s window in the middle of the night from the fire escape. She is seeking escape (as we eventually find out) from her stepfather’s violence, which (we also find out later) her mother puts up with because she fears being deported if she reports the abuse — or even if she tries to leave him, because he has threatened to respond by reporting her to the immigration authorities. G sleeps over, sharing a bed, not for the first or last time.
But B also needs to escape his situation. His mother, fed up with the fear and harassment that comes with a lack of documents, has decided to move back home (to a country that is not specified.) Although she offers B the choice of returning with her, her country is not his home; his home is the city where he’s lived since the age of seven, more than half his life. But if he stays by himself, how can he support himself? How can he go on to college, since he won’t be able to afford it on his own, and he is prevented from getting a scholarship because he is undocumented? G (eventually) proposes a solution.
These stories are powerful, and we are drawn to them, not least because of the appeal of the young cast — Jasai Chase-Owens as awkward, studious, kindhearted; Sharlene Cruz as more outgoing. Several of their scenes — of their sleeping (actually standing) chastely side by side; of their going to high school prom together, pretending to be above it all, but having a ball – are close to heartwarming. Their eventual alienation is heartbreaking.
But the stories are told through Majok’s unconventional structure, which reads as clever, if you’re privileged enough literally to get ahold of the script to read; but it’s more of a puzzle if you can only take it in through director Rebecca Frecknall’s self-conscious staging.
The first half of the play is told in slivers of dialogue, often repetitive, only occasionally spelled out, more often so elliptical as to be almost in code.
G And you can rent out the extra room!
B What room?
G For extra money. You can rent out the extra room in this apartment!
G When she. Eventually.
B It’s okay.
These fragments of scenes take place on a stage virtually devoid of scenery or props, and are punctuated by lighting designer Isabella Byrd’s blinding flashes of light. This can be appreciated as a metaphor for the crackling synapses of these teenagers, suggesting that we have entered directly into their fervent adolescent thoughts and feelings. But one could also argue that the bombardment is a distraction, making it harder for audience members to piece it all together.
As with the playwright’s choice to call the two characters B and G, although they are far from just generic Dreamers, the approach works on a level below the surface better than it does on the surface.
The second half of the play (without an intermission) switches gears. It unfolds as a single scene in real time taking place three years after the last events of the first half. Nothing is elliptical now; everything is spelled out (spills out.) The scene contains several dramatic surprises, which I’ll avoid spoiling. I’ll only say the scene involves a third character, this one with a name, Henry (Austin Smith), who is the son of immigrants rather than an immigrant himself (which makes all the difference); and it highlights the negative impact of immigration policy on these characters’ lives in a completely new way. Having fallen for these characters, and feeling for them, you wind up feeling disappointed in them, but mostly disappointed for them.
Since the scene takes place in 2006 (when B and G are now 22) some of those policies have now changed. But the overall situation explored in “Sanctuary City” remains relevant, pointed and poignant.
For me personally, there is more that’s ironic about “Sanctuary City” than just the title. I had requested an invitation to attend the play during the regular press previews before the play’s opening, which was scheduled for March, 2020. But my request was rejected; the play was shut down before it opened, so I did not get to see it. For months, I regularly walked by the shuttered theater, reading the title of the play on the marquee, and feeling a combination of longing, frustration, anger and regret. Now that I finally, eighteen months later, have gotten inside the theater, I see that these are the feelings that Majok wants us to understand are writ large for immigrants who are excluded, denied their identity as Americans.
New York Theatre Workshop at Lucille Lortel Theater through October 10, 2021.
Running time: 110 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $36.75 – $81.75
Written by Martyna Majok
Directed by Rebecca Frecknall
Remount Director Caitlin Sullivan
Scenic & Costume Design Tom Scutt
Lighting Design Isabella Byrd
Sound Design Mikaal Sulaiman
Stage Manager Merrick A.B. Williams
Cast: Jasai Chase-Owens as B. Sharlene Cruz as G. Austin Smith as Henry.