Immigration issues, friendship, and love lie at the heart of Steppenwolf’s Sanctuary City

Photo by Michael Brosilow

Volunteers say buses of migrants arriving in Chicago at increased rate.” —Headline in Chicago Tribune 9/23/23

Martyna Majok’s Sanctuary City is set in the aftermath of 9/11, but little has changed for the better for immigrants to the US in the intervening years. Headlines such as the one above are common as red state governors expel waves of newcomers, sending them north to blue states in a game of political football. We long ago abandoned the words engraved on the Statue of Liberty (“send me your tired, your poor,”) and now we have to accept that we are not a welcoming nation to these homeless people.

The key word there is “people,” often young people who have done nothing to put themselves in the precarious position they are in. Human beings. Innocent human beings. Not the drug dealers and rapists that Donald Trump once called them, but the kind of people we meet in Sanctuary City, where the characters are all young adults just trying to make lives for themselves. “B” (Grant Kennedy Lewis) and “G” (Jocelyn Zamudio) start the play as high school seniors who are very concerned about the fact that, as immigrants, they might be expelled from the only country they know. “G” lives with her mother and whatever awful boyfriend the woman has at the moment, frightened to complain about violence or abuse because of her undocumented status; “B” lives with his alcoholic mother, knowing they have overstayed their visas; both know they are just a phone call away from deportation.

This Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads has bonded them, and each has become the other’s best friend, two 17-year-olds with no one to turn to but each other. At the start, most of the things they are dealing with stem from G’s mother and her abusive boyfriend. We meet G at the start of the play on a very cold night when she climbs B’s fire escape to ask if she can crash on his couch…which, of course, she can.

Majok writes this entire opening section as if it were a bunch of discontinuous moments in a longer conversation. Dialogue will stop suddenly, restart, skip parts, or double back on itself and repeat moments. Director Steph Paul has her characters, in the breaks between these scraps of dialogue, move about the stage—seemingly randomly—and often speak facing away from each other, emphasizing both their separation from the world in which they live and the repetitive nature of their lives. But these two performers are intriguing and pleasant enough that we happily follow as we try to build our own relationships with them through this bizarre Moebius strip of conversational snippets. They are also likable enough that we want their characters to succeed. When G’s mother surprises her by getting a green card—naturalizing them both at once since G is still underage—the girl then surprises B with her sudden willingness to arrange a “green card marriage” with him. Quickly, their disconnected conversations change into rehearsals that can “prove” that they are married and share a life, even as she is about to go to Boston for a college education that is suddenly available to her but that he can’t hope to receive.

I should mention at this point that a lot of this is very, very funny. Majok knows her stuff: writing about circumstances that could make hearts bleed, it’s important not to wallow in the pain but engage in the humor that human beings can so often unexpectedly find in uncomfortable places. And Paul’s immaculate pacing emphasizes both the difficult uncertainties and the laughter. She is aided by excellent use of lighting designed by Reza Behjat and sound by Mikhail Fiksel, who keep this play in the realm of the surreal.

Until they don’t.

In the play’s second half, three and a half years have gone by, and suddenly we are in a mostly continuous plotline. G did not return as promised to help B with his green card, with no explanation, but now—at a break in her senior year—she suddenly shows up at his door hoping to make some kind of amends. Her arrival, however, drops a wrench into B’s relationship with his boyfriend, played by Brandon Rivera. Seeing that she had all but lost him, she tells B she is once again willing to help him get his green card, initiating predictable animosity in the boyfriend, who has his own desire to marry B—even if this wouldn’t help with immigration at all, since it’s 2006, only Massachusetts has legalized gay marriage, and his marriage to B would be as much of a sham to the national authorities as would one between B and G.

As this unusual triangle of characters attempts to untangle relationships and figure out how to proceed into the future, the play, though still excellent, no longer feels as bright and hopeful. Surprisingly, it feels darker than it seemed at the start, when both main characters could feel the pressure of imminent deportation…a testimony to the strength of the playwright, the actors, and the director: success and happiness often require sacrifice as well as good timing, and sometimes it’s just all too much; sometimes the opportunity is missed.

Steppenwolf is presenting this play in matinées to groups of high school students along with staging it for regular evening visitors, and indeed it is a play that should reach out to both audiences. It’s a powerful piece that highlights the problems that can arise when our core needs for friendship, home, and love intertwine in ways that those in charge don’t approve of. Majok’s decision to set it in the aughts shows how little things have really changed. Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.

Sanctuary City is a Steppenwolf Theatre production now playing at their Ensemble Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted in Chicago through November 18.  Performance times vary; check the website at Steppenwolf.org.  Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com

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