‘Sanctuary City’ at Theatre NOVA is exceptional and timely
ANN ARBOR, MI–Days before the mid-term elections, you can hardly go on social media or watch TV or listen to the radio without hearing ads from Republicans trumpeting the thought that attempts by Hispanics to cross the southern border undocumented is the scourge of our times.
Never mind that gunshots are now the single leading cause of death among children and that women are facing the loss of their healthcare rights at the hands of an evangelical religious cabal the Republicans count on for votes. But people from our neighboring country wanting to live in a land of opportunity, even if it means starting out picking vegetables, laying roof tiles and working in restaurant kitchens, must be the biggest thing that ails us?
The beauty of well-written plays and films, or of inspiring art in general, is to bring stories to us that are steeped in truth and reality without being dull or preachy. Into this breach is Sanctuary City, a play by Martyna Majok that takes a compelling look at two close friends who have known the stress and trials of being an undocumented immigrant. It is presented by Theatre NOVA, and runs through 11/24. Tickets can be purchased at www.theatrenova.org.
Set in Newark, New Jersey in the early 2000s, shortly after 9/11 and the introduction of the DREAM Act, the story focuses on two teenagers–both undocumented who, despite living most of their lives in the United States, live in fear of deportation. They were brought to the U.S. as kids by their parents. They had no choice in the matter, and know nothing else but life in Newark.
The girl (Marie Muhammad) often sleeps over in the boy’s (Jose Martinez-Chavarria) rented room to avoid her mother’s abusive boyfriend against whom they have no legal recourse because of their status. Majok never gives these two names, presumably to highlight the fact that they are mere pawns in the US’s political war over immigrants and to make the story as universal as possible. The boy is also gay, which was an excellent choice by Majok, because it takes sex out of the story as the two often share his single bed, and it instead focuses the story on their friendship.
There is a key change in the story, though, when the girl’s mother surreptitiously and suddenly obtains her citizenship, thus extending citizenship to the girl who is still under 18. Her luck and good fortune suddenly starts erecting a wall between the two, despite the plan being put into motion for the two of them to get married so her citizenship can be conferred on the boy.
The girl’s new-found status gives her opportunities that the boy can only dream about. She gets a full scholarship at Boston University and moves away, and slowly the plan of her marrying the boy so he can get in line for scholarships and Federal grants begins to fade with time and distance.
Three years later, the two are re-united, and much drama is introduced in the character of Henry (Mike Sandusky) who has formed a relationship with the boy. He is a lawyer of some means and resents the presence of the girl and the broken promise that she would marry the boy.
The strength of Sanctuary City is the smallness of the story, which seems to perfectly capture the humanity of people caught in America’s political shit-show over immigration, and Majok’s gift for situational dialogue. When we are present for the showdown among the three players, every word feels natural, steeped with personal pain and desperation. We are, indeed, flies on the wall of superbly written human drama.
Muhammad and Martinez-Chavarria are both extremely good in their depictions and grasp of the characters. Sandusky, too, is exceptional in his stage minutes when he asserts himself as more knowing than the two and his affection for the boy, and apprehension and skepticism about the girl.
Majok has written in a lot of time-shifting sequences in the first half of the play. And for the first 15 minutes or so, the pace and constant shifting, made all the more frenetic by the use of a strobe light to indicate another shift of time and place, is jarring and slightly disorienting. But being made slightly uncomfortable is not a bad thing here. Indeed, one realizes after a while, becoming comfortable with Majok’s choice, that the unsettled feeling is what undocumented immigrants face every hour of every day.
Directed by Carla Milarch, Sanctuary City, which one a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, should make most of think…think about what really is important for the U.S. America is a country founded on immigration. Immigration has been at the heart of what has built the country, and it is at the heart of what divides us.
Understanding the differences is what superior storytelling, art and theatre is all about.