Review: In ‘Sanctuary City,’ Slamming the Door on the Dream

After winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for her play “Cost of Living,” which is about two generations of immigrant women being exploited in an illegal basement apartment in Queens, New York, Martyna Majok immediately went on to produce a work that far surpassed the excellence of her previous effort.

Review: In ‘Sanctuary City,’ Slamming the Door on the Dream

In ‘Sanctuary City,’ Slamming the Door on the Dream

Two undocumented teenage immigrants of colour (Jasai Chase-Owens and Sharlene Cruz) are left to fend for themselves in the opening scene of “Sanctuary City,” which takes place in a city in the United States (the script says Newark, New Jersey) that is anything but a sanctuary.

In the credits, she is referred to as “G,” and she is staying at his house (the male character is identified as B). She comes in through the window while it’s still cold outside and asks clumsily if she may spend the night.

Majok uses this window motif as a jumping off point for a variety of topics discussed in the first half of this 105-minute one-act play, including a mother’s return to her native country, the benefits of free food at work, making up an illness to get out of school, a violent stepfather, and a chance but cathartic prom date.

The sequences are organised in the script according to the different seasons, such as winter 2001, spring 2002, August 2002, spring 2003, etc. Reading this script is a pleasant experience. Live performances offer a more impressionistic, less linear experience.

Numerous “Scenes” Consist Largely of one or two Lines of Dialogue at Most.

Isabella Byrd’s lighting denotes the ellipses (which appear as asterisks in the screenplay), but the frequent fading of lights does more than just signal a different time and place;

it also disturbs the actors’ performances in a manner that film editing, for example, would not. Both Cruz and Chase-Owens are interesting to watch, although they don’t always succeed in navigating the plot’s many sudden shifts.

Originally scheduled to launch in the spring of 2020 under Rebecca Frecknall’s direction, “Sanctuary City” now features the notation “with remount direction by Caitlin Sullivan.” As the play progresses to its main story, Cruz and Chase-Owens do relax into their performances despite the unexpected obstacle presented by the director.

The G character becomes a citizen of the United States and eventually marries the B character for reasons that would require too much explanation here. In order to convince authorities that they are a real couple, the two of them need to coordinate their claims of carnal knowledge, despite the fact that they have spent a lot of time together in his bedroom.

Then, after high school graduation, she moves to Boston for college, while he keeps his job in the restaurant and saves up enough money to move into his own place.

Putting aside this minor credibility issue, the couple’s discourse of a love that never existed provides the foundation for the second half of “Sanctuary City,” which is both plot-heavy and well-constructed and takes place in real time without any breaks.

There should be no need for a spoiler warning in this case. After all, isn’t it plain why teenagers of different sexes don’t have sex when they sleep together? However, under Frecknall and Sullivan’s direction, Henry’s (Austin Smith, who brings a lot of life to the role) entrance becomes a surprise, if not a shock, one that caused the often discerning NYTW audience to gasp.

Really? Should 2021’s Big Reveal be how a Character’s Sexual Orientation is Revealed?

The four years that G is away at school are similarly distorted. The Intermission was created in the 20th century to accommodate such large time jumps in plays with two or more acts and running times of roughly 150 minutes.

Changing into a new hairstyle was also helpful. Frecknall and Sullivan skip the break and instead rely on the hectic lighting design by Byrd to show the transition from 2003 to 2006. The outcome is chaotic, as if Cruz were trapped in a malfunctioning time machine that had been tossed into a disco.

As it turns out, no wedding took place, but a new serious romantic partnership did form. When a crisis that could derail Henry’s promising career arises, the ensuing argument is interesting, heartbreaking, and even terrifying.


The most touching part is when G and B practise their fake marriage interview one more time and the conversation flows naturally into what Henry and his lover have actually been through together.

Majok’s piece suffers from the fact that a young gay undocumented immigrant like G has just too many awful options. There’s not enough room for drama to grow in the heated discussion of what he should do. More time is required for this amount of narrative.