Martyna Majok writes powerfully and brilliantly about marginalized people, particularly undocumented immigrants living in Northern New Jersey, as in Ironbound and her 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winner Cost of Living. Her new play, Sanctuary City, set in Newark, now being given its world premiere production by the New York Theatre Workshop at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, is the same only different. While the characters could be cousins to others in her previous plays (as well as her 2018 queens), the structure and format is quite audacious and unusual, making the play a bit off-putting.
As staged by British director Rebecca Frecknall just before the pandemic shutdown (and remounted by Caitlin Sullivan for the reopening), the play could not be more spare: performed on a platform on an empty stage as designed by Tom Scutt, using only four props in the entire evening, the production directs our attention acutely to the characters and the dialogue. Listed in the program as simply B. and G., Jasai Chase-Owens and Sharlene Cruz play a pair of high school juniors in 2001 who are both undocumented and suffering the consequences (nationality not given). She is being physically abused by her step-father but her mother can’t risk going to the police. His mother talks of returning to her home country but he is not interested in leaving, knowing only his life in Newark. Things come to a head when his mother leaves and her mother gains citizenship for herself and her daughter as well as getting an order of protection from her husband.
However, G. can now apply for college and scholarships but B. cannot without legal papers. His having to work many hours in order to pay his way now that his mother is not contributing to rent and food means that his grades start to go down. G. comes up with a possible solution now that she is a naturalized citizen: they will marry and in five years he will be able to become legal. They begin practicing the questions that will be asked by investigators about their relationship. However, they have not considered the risk, nor the fact that she is going off to college in Boston.
The performances by Cruz and Chase-Owens could not be more intense or more riveting. The problem with the play is the staccato nature of the first half, quick short conversations of less than half a minute where they are never allowed to finish a sentence. The dimly lit scenes are not only intercut with later ones but they are often only five lines long, giving the play a pulsating energy which is exhausting. Each vignette is punctuated by both a lighting change by designer Isabella Byrd and a sound effect by Mikaal Sulaiman. The bare set, of course, works beautifully for this approach as the actors need little movement to suggest a different time or place.
Then the second half begins and turns out to be totally different from the first. Told in one long dramatic scene with the lights fully up, B. and G. meet again after three and half years of her being away at college. They are joined by a third character who changes the complexion of their relationship. They have not gotten married but it is still on the table as a possibility. The two halves almost seem to be two different plays, and it is likely that audience members will like one half better than the other. The tone of the two halves is entirely and unaccountably unrelated.
It is a daring dramatic ploy and not entirely successful. The direction and acting is first-rate and very taut but it cannot cover for the feeling that we are being given two separate plays, made more obvious by the lack of an intermission between the halves. This, of course, does not vitiate the content of the play about living on the edge as an undocumented immigrant who could be picked up and deported at any time, unable to make any future plans, and always living on the edge in dead-end jobs. At this Majok has no current peer. One wishes that the dramatic structure was as tight as her breathtaking Pulitzer Prize-winning Cost of Living which was consistent all the way through.
Sanctuary City (extended live through October 17, 2021; streaming October 25 – November 21, 2021)
New York Theatre Workshop
Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, between Bleecker and Hudson Streets, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212–460-5475 or visits http://www.nytw.org
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission