Irresistible, gutting friendship in ‘Sanctuary City’ chills to the bone

Photo of "Sanctuary City"
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A teenage girl hurriedly bangs on a bedroom window, shaking on the fire escape as she impatiently pleads for refuge from the cold night. B, a kindhearted, awkward boy wearing baggy clothes and a backwards snapback hat lets her in despite needing sleep for a test the next day. B (Hernán Angelo) notices that G (María Victoria Martínez) is bleeding, and as the evening is interjected with glimpses of the past, the more evident it becomes that neither her injury nor her midnight flight are out of the ordinary. 

So begins Martyna Majok’s “Sanctuary City” at Berkeley Repertory Theater, the play’s West Coast premiere. The precise, restless script is brought to life with equally brilliant staging by director David Mendizábal, and B and G seamlessly jump through time and space up to several times a minute to create a collage of key moments in their young lives. With no props and little more than a lighting change to indicate the switch between each vignette, Mendizábal cleverly maneuvers B and G across the stage in a way that adds clarity and fluidity to the sequence.

Brought to the United States when they were young, B and G, along with their mothers, are living in the country illegally. G lives in a violent home with her mother and her mother’s abusive boyfriend, hiding the evidence from school by sending a concerned but complacent B to explain her absences as illnesses. 

B, a diligent student despite working long hours after school, dreams of attending college — a prospect which borders on impossible when his mother is deported. After G’s mother passes the citizenship test and G automatically acquires citizenship, she gets a scholarship to Boston College and pursues a future B has always wanted. Before she leaves, G proposes a risky but tantalizing prospect — the two friends get married so B can become naturalized.

Majok’s writing is phenomenal, triumphantly conveying the complex, multilayered emotions and motives of her scrappy, toughened, hopeful characters. B and G are thoroughly captivating, bursting at the seams with the pain, resilience and relentlessness of young adults who grew up too fast. They are dreamers stifled by their very existence in their home country, struggling to hold their heads above the water as their lives become flooded with anger, guilt and overwhelming fear. 

“Sanctuary City” educates American viewers about United States immigration policies that most are lucky enough to avoid ever facing. Through its narrative, it describes the opportunities closed off to non-citizens, the arduous and lengthy process of obtaining citizenship and the severe punishment awaiting those who resort to marriage fraud — up to five years imprisonment and a fine of up to $250,000. However, its criticism of the system goes beyond simply presenting this information, and it is by seeing how these policies control and change the lives of its characters that the play is able to most effectively convey its message.

Majok’s leads are torn between hope and helplessness. They are desperate. They are hungry. Pressure continually builds, and audiences share the steadily increasing stress. The well-intentioned and sympathetic B and G are repeatedly traumatized by having their lives restricted and uprooted. Uncertainty and worry are their only constants. Though the challenges they face can never truly be understood by those who haven’t experienced them first-hand, Majok forces all audiences to sit with this discomfort for at least an hour and a half. Simultaneously, she pushes viewers to imagine a lifetime of fears and limitations, an impossible task that emphasizes the extent of these unbelievable hardships with its insurmountability.

Angulo and Martínez give incredible performances, bringing soul and authenticity to their roles. The two effortlessly maneuver the play’s quick time jumps and transitions, shifting emotional gears in the blink of an eye with almost superhuman accuracy. Their performances elevate the tenderness of the story tenfold.

A play about love, trauma and politics, “Sanctuary City” is, above all, a story about humanity. Majok’s latest will change how audiences look at the world, inspiring viewers to move forward with fervor.

Joy Diamond covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].