Martyna Majok’s Sanctuary City had a handful of performances in March 2020, before theater was shut down by COVID-19, and it’s returned to the stage almost unchanged: same cast, same director, same designers; they’re even handing out programs printed for the original run, with an insert directing you to the updated content. But the world around it has, of course, changed enormously: The context for a play about the intimate lives of undocumented immigrant teenagers, set in the years before DACA, is different in the first year of the Biden administration than in the last year Trump’s presidency (not different as you might expect, one could argue based on recent events). The simple act of gathering in a room clapping for live performers has a poignancy I could never have predicted (the play packs an emotional punch all on its own, don’t get me wrong, but I think perhaps I would have wiped away tears at the curtain call of even the sunniest farce).
And of course, there’s the fact of needing to present evidence of COVID vaccination as you walk into a play that grapples with the dangers and the despair of being denied access to a status that allows you to fully participate in society. Let me be extremely clear that there is no argument to be made about the equivalence of being an undocumented teenager and an unvaccinated adult–but I suspect that for the majority of a commercial Off-Broadway audience, this is the very rare time when they’ve been asked to prove their right to enter a public space in America, and I find myself thinking about the level of anxiety and stress produced by needing to do so even when I have the required documentation and that documentation was made as easy as possible for me to acquire. I find myself thinking about the risk calculation that now must be made for simple, everyday tasks like riding the subway or eating in a restaurant or going to one’s job (or sitting in a theater) and how that’s again not in any way equivalent to the risk calculations made by an undocumented immigrant, but maybe just the tiniest bit of a gesture toward understanding.
I find myself thinking about the ways that America has so often tried to wash its hands of the destructive effects of policy on people, and of all the op-eds I’ve read these past two weeks on the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, talking about how Americans came together in the face of tragedy then in a way we seem unable to do now, and of all the people who were excluded as “Americans” “coming together” twenty years ago and how now those same people are in a whole new crisis bearing whole new burdens, alongside the old ones. And walking out of Sanctuary City, I also found myself thinking of the old-school feminist rallying cry, “The personal is political.” Because for B (Jasai Chase-Owens) and G (Sharlene Cruz), undocumented high school students in Newark in the days just post-9/11 everything immigration-related was suddenly under a harsh new spotlight, every choice they make is inextricably entwined with the politics of their immigration status; every move is fraught and every option is bad.
B and G are smart kids, the ones who passed out of ESL into regular classes quickly and never looked back. They’re ambitious, with plans for college and future dreams. But now, after September 11, they’re both in a place of new crisis. B’s mom plans to return to their native country out of new anxieties about the state of America–which means he can’t even apply to college because he can neither afford tuition nor legally apply for financial aid. He doesn’t want to go back, give up on high school and the only life he knows, but he doesn’t know how he’s going to keep a roof over his head without her. G and her mom are being physically abused by her mother’s partner, but they can’t call the police because her stepfather is using their immigration status as a threat. Everything they do, every plan they have, contains a risk and a threat and they’re trying to balance the least bad options.
The first part of the play stutters and sizzles, in short, sharp scenes that jump around in time to depict the drumbeat of repeating patterns of the trauma they’re trapped in and the unwavering support they provide for each other. Time after time, G knocks on B’s window in the middle of the night, bruised or bleeding, and B makes her excuses at school the next day. Moment after moment, B tries to figure out how he’s going to survive without his mother and G offers to contribute to his rent. On a bare stage, with no props and the simplest of costumes, director Rebecca Frecknall, Chase-Owens, and Cruz make the tiniest shifts in inflection convey both the sameness and the distinction of each link in this chain, each instance as they pile up. Isabella Byrd’s lighting and Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound design give a sharp flare and pop to each transition, amping up the volatility, the sense that everything is one beat away from bursting into flame. (It is not a coincidence that one of the only two tangible physical objects in this part of the piece is a lighter.)
But then, by some miracle, G’s mother is able to legalize her status, become a citizen, and leave her abusive partner while her daughter is still a minor, meaning G gains citizenship too. G can get a scholarship to college. She’s almost afraid to tell B when she gets in; she recognizes the cruelty in asking him to celebrate for her something that is denied to him. But she also sees an opportunity—she can marry B. They’re not actually romantically or sexually involved, but she can give him this.
The structure of the play doesn’t change here–same short, sharp scenes; same repetitive time loop–but now it allows for a chink of light, while they practice answers to immigration questions and even take a break to go to their senior prom (with the requisite amount of eye-rolling but also some very real joy). (The immigration practice is a surprisingly effective way to do exposition, giving real stakes to their explication of their shared past and highlighting the things they don’t know about each other.) They seal their pact as G leaves for school (with a ring, the only other real object in part 1), and it’s no coincidence that B, not her mother, is the person to see her off.
And then we fast-forward three years; the second section of the play takes place in linear time, over the course of one evening and in a more realized physical environment (we still don’t see a set, but we have props, coats, things of the world). And in this moment, everything falls apart. B is involved with someone else, while G has been living up to the letter of their engagement. B’s partner, Henry (Austin Smith), was never happy about the marriage and is even less inclined to trust G once she shows up after being unheard from for months. G is newly aware of the risk she’s taking and unable to trust Henry, and she asks B to make an impossible, terrible choice.
The mechanics of the plot suffer a little from the snap into real time–the events and momentous decisions feel a little implausibly condensed into this brief time span–but structurally it makes sense. Time has passed, and for G, in theory, much has changed, but they’re back where they’ve always been: B’s apartment, trying to solve a structural problem with an individual solution. They’re still circling back to their immigration practice, to the stories they’ve been telling their whole lives, to the only thing that feels safe for G–only now it’s tinged with a bitter understanding that even between the two of them, there are secrets and mistrust. Chase-Owens and Cruz painfully convey two people seeking out the comfort and ease that used to exist in their relationship, and the small stab every time they can’t get back to that place. And the skeptical Henry dives in with new questions, harder ones, that underscore how much they don’t, in the end, know about each other.
We can look at this play and see a tiny hint of progress that would come in the years immediately following its ending: DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) passed; kids like B had a narrow path that would allow them to attend college (though not to receive federal financial aid, which means B might have effectively been barred anyway). Obergefell v. Hodges guaranteed that B and Henry could have married, granting B his citizenship through his actual partner.
But we can also look at it and see how it actually, devastatingly, ends: B, alone. G, alone. Henry, alone. We can look at it and see where we are now: a Haitian refugee crisis on our southern border, all of us mired in the reality of an ongoing national pandemic crisis that’s being blamed on immigration but is hopelessly mired in politics, the DREAM Act stuck forever in committee. The political is personal: The lives of these characters remain warped by their experiences with being deemed illegitimate by society, for G as much as for B. This play makes me ache for the state of the world, and for the damage being done by policy and politics to us all. Not for G, not for B, but for all of us: The personal is political.