One of the most fascinating elements of the superb Martyna Majok’s Sanctuary City, directed by Rebecca Frecknall, is the symbolic stylization conveyed by the script. Majok’s script is a powerhouse. It is rhythmic, poetic and a rap of eternal, brief moments of brilliance in time. Majok’s layered work elucidates how relationships begin, not with long conversational pieces, but with connecting, truncated slips of thought. She suggests that relationships evolve through the power of memory and imagination, the interactions between “B” (the adorable and heartfelt Jasal Chase-Owens), and the emotionally wired “G” (the wonderful Sharlene Cruz,). These prove to be fatal, fairy wisps in the first part of the production.
Frecknall’s staging on a bare, raised platform, sans props and any theatrical spectacle, requires that the audience focus on Majok’s words which, abstracted, are short, repetitive bursts. For emphasis and effect, Frecknall follows the brief, seven word or less sentences with brilliant strobe light flashes, denoting flashbacks and changes of scene, situation and time. The intriguing lighting and set design are by Tom Scutt and Isabella Byrd with Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound design.
The effect, revealing the stress and anxiety of the characters, recalls the dislocation and alienation that characters experience in plays like Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Such stylized dialogue brings to mind the mission of Theatre of the Absurdists, who highlighted the incapacity of language to convey emotion and heart. When human beings experience trauma, internal isolation and nihilism to a devastating extent, verbalization seems impossible.
Thus, as teenagers “B” and “G” move and re-position themselves onstage. As the portray these characters Chase-Owens and Cruz, offer fragments of memory recalling the past with intensity. Engaged, we follow intently, discovering that they are illegal aliens. “B’s” mom is fed up and intends to return to a country that her son was too young to know. “G’s” mom is oppressed and abused by the partner she lives with who also wallops “G” for good measure when she gets in the way. “G” and “B,” who are archetypes of dreamers everywhere, have parents who are single women. Hampered by fear of reprisal and intimidated by threats of deportation, the mothers are unable to make comfortable lives for their children. They struggle to do their best, but instead “B” and “G” are brought into a cold, indecent, alien world of devastation without citizenship.
We watch in the dim light and lightning-like flashes how Cruz’s “G” often climbs up the fire escape seeking “sanctuary” and help from Chase-Owens “B.” The abuse, arguments and chaos at her apartment create phenomenal stress; she must leave. “B” welcomes her and eventually she sleeps in his bed and they have sex to make a connection so they feel less alone. Both confide in each other, encourage each other at school and “dream” of better times which eventually do happen for “G.” The superb actors create a relationship dynamic that is believable and vital. Interested and invested in their prodigiously skilled portrayals, we stay with them throughout the play.
The setting is New Jersey in 2006, in a country which ill uses its immigrants because political parties have exploited the issue of citizenship as a way to consolidate power. For “B” who fears getting caught and being deported, the emotional terrors are like a war of attrition that force him and his mother to live an impoverished pressure-cooker existence. They wait daily for the explosion to occur, of their being caught and deported.
We discover through the light flashes and their circular movements on the platform, that “B” and “G” trace the chronology of their relationship in staccato bursts of memory. These lead to an apotheosis at the play’s conclusion. We empathize with “B’s” concern for his mother, who suffers abuse and bullying from her employer. She obeys his every word, and overlooks his skimping her pay. His disrespect is better than returning to the homeland, until she reaches a point of no return and decides it is enough.
Thus, Majok reminds us continually by examining the plight of “G’s” and “B’s” situation, that immigrant women are often sexually abused and beaten because they have no leverage. As in the case of “G’s” mother, orders of protection are useless because the partner can call INS (currently ICE), and have them deported, if they don’t comply sexually. Indeed, once the partner exhausts the mother, the implication is that he will come for “G.” At times “G” shows up at “B’s” bleeding and bruised by his wanton brutality.
However, hope does come. And in the same stylized format of language, “G” tells “B” that her mother got her papers and miraculously, “G” is a citizen. That moment of G’s” joy causes “B’s” searing pain. While “G” no longer fears discovery and looks forward to their moving away from her mom’s monstrous partner, we note “B’s” sadness and envy. He is stuck. His mother is going back to the “homeland” and his confidante and ersatz lover has “made it” to a more superior position in the immigrant pecking order, while he must wallow in her wake, facing the shadows of fear and oppression alone.
It is at this juncture that a turning point occurs. The guilt “G” feels about her position in comparison to “B’s” situation wears on her. She forms the idea that as he has given her sanctuary, perhaps she can do the same for him. Her method is to select the way to citizenship immigrants have employed for decades. After all, she has feelings for him and is willing to risk her life offering to marry him, though, if discovered, she possibly would lose her own citizenship, be fined and jailed after he is deported.
Majok’s script sags when the plans evolve for “G” to help “B.” Perhaps due to the continued flashes of light and whirl-y-gig staging, the sameness becomes tedious. However, there is the wonderful and welcome respite of their dancing and going to the prom with additional colorful lighting. The diversion from the stasis of the repetitive stagnant (the symbolism is apparent…no need to bludgeon the audience), might have come sooner.
And then comes the transformation of a three-year hiatus which Frecknall announces with sound effects and darkness both of which are symbolically ominous. Subsequently, Henry (the excellent Austin Smith) comes onto the threshold of “B’s” life to provide safety and emotional sustenance as “G” once had, until she returns, and the three clash. In this second sequence of events, all is light with no obfuscation. “B” and “G” no longer maneuver around each other. Their dynamic is straightforward. Now, it is “G” who must sink or swim in her emotional guilt while “B” makes a decision about citizenship and sacrificing love.
What happened to “G” and “B’s” compact, their relationship, their closeness? Majok presents the stark themes. Immigrants and illegal aliens are compelled by political forces to behave in ways counter to their altruistic good will and sense of decency. Of course, this doesn’t just pertain to those trying for citizenship. It doubly applies to citizens who have become mentally and emotionally inert and are inured to the sensitivities of others because they are weighted down by materialism and consumerism. In other words, they having forgotten “where they came from.” Ironically, the country then, no longer becomes a sanctuary, but a prison that has sucked their life force dry.
These themes are only a few of those that Majok covers in this play of antitheses: of connection and isolation, of compromise and extremism, of fear and hope, of dislocation and community, of alienation and unity.
Through various administrations, we’ve closed our borders following the need of politicians to use immigration and immigrants as playthings to boogeymen citizens and grow their political power base. Sanctuary City shines a unique light on the PTSD that arises for those who want a better life and are willing to risk their substance to dream big and/or help others who are lost in limbo between citizenship and deportation; those who wait for the light of deliverance. Majok’s writing is poetic and austere with the rhythms of immigrants’ and aliens’ voices and silences.
Kudos to the technical team that melded the elements lighting, sound, stage design, etc., to reflect the themes and sync them with the beautiful movement, and symbolism staged and directed by Frecknall. Her acute talents exceptional and show insight, precision and intuition.. If you can get down to Lucille Lortel Theatre to see Sanctuary City before it closes this weekend. you will be happy you did. For tickets and times go to their website. https://www.nytw.org/show/sanctuary-city/