A timely drama of the young immigrant experience in NYTW’s ‘Sanctuary City’ at the Lucille Lortel Theatre

New York Theatre Workshop’s production of Sanctuary City by Pulitzer Prize winner Martyna Majok (Cost of Living) has returned to the stage at Off-Broadway’s Lucille Lortel Theatre with its original cast, after preview performances were shut down by COVID-19 in March 2020. The set had been left intact for the entire eighteen months of the pandemic closure, with the clear intention of bringing back the timely drama, focused on the immigrant experience and on the critical choices no teenager should ever be forced to make.

Jasai Chase-Owens and Sharlene Cruz. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Set in Newark, NJ, from 2001-06, the story follows the journey of two high-school students brought to the US as young children by their undocumented mothers from unnamed countries to pursue the American Dream. As is too often the case, it doesn’t always go according to plan for the characters, identified simply as B and G, to represent all boys and girls who find themselves in this difficult position, under the crushing weight of responsibility that would be untenable even for an adult.

Originally directed by British Olivier Award winner Rebecca Frecknall, with Caitlin Sullivan following her lead as the remount director, the show is structured in two distinctly different formats – one experimental, one traditional. It opens with a rapid-fire sequence of fractured segments, signaled by dramatic flashing lights and ending with blackouts (by Obie Award winner Isabella Byrd), in which the teenagers, friends since the third grade, reveal their backstories and their lifelong bond through truncated conversations and brief  interactions. In many cases, they repeat the same words, phrases, actions, and challenges they face on a daily basis; at times they don’t need to finish their sentences – they understand one another because of their common struggles, closeness, and support.

But things begin to change when their mothers take separate paths – G’s leaving her abusive stepfather and becoming a naturalized US citizen (a status that extends to her underage daughter), B’s returning to her home country. Consequently, G is able to go on to college in Boston, while B must decide if he should go back to his homeland with his mom or remain in Newark illegally – unless they were to get married, so he, too, would be eligible for a green card.

As they make plans for their wedding and rehearse their answers to the questions they might be asked by government authorities, things begin to change and, once again, they must make tough decisions that will impact their relationship and their future. It all comes to a head in the second half of the show, staged in in a melodramatic narrative format, with the entry of Henry.

What is presented as the big reveal of the three-hander comes as no surprise in light of the familial friendship we witnessed between B and G earlier, nor should it be. What does resonate in the ultimate blow-out of the at-odds trio is the question of self-interest trumping loyalty, trust, devotion, and the willingness to make sacrifices to help someone they love, along with the overriding importance of getting a quality education to achieve the goal of a new and better life, even if it means forsaking those to whom they are closest. Though universally human considerations, they hold added pressures for immigrants under the constant threat of deportation.

Sharlene Cruz and Jasai Chase-Owens. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Despite the obvious development and the overwrought tone of Majok’s writing of the concluding confrontation, the cast – Jasai Chase-Owens as B, Sharlene Cruz as G, and Austin Smith as Henry – delivers emotionally powerful performances that are both believable and empathetic. They make us feel their characters’ love, disappointment, and moments of enjoyment (B and G’s ebullient dancing to pop hits of the period are among the most high-spirited and fun), and leave us caring and hoping for an outcome that will fulfill their dreams in a country with people, and an immigration policy, that welcome them.

The compelling acting is supported by a subtle and telling design, with expressive sound by Mikaal Sulaiman, and a minimalist grey set and simple costumes by Tom Scutt that evoke the drabness and hardship of their young lives and their driving desire for something more.

Running Time: Approximately 95 minutes, without intermission.

Sanctuary City plays through Sunday, October 10, 2021, at New York Theatre Workshop, performing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St, NYC. For tickets, priced at $30, go online. In compliance with mandatory COVID-19 safety protocol, masks and proof of vaccination or negative COVID test are required for all attendees.

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