Berkeley Repertory Theatre, in Association with Arena Stage
Two high school seniors each are seeking sanctuary from a life that fate and family have unfortunately gifted them. B (as in Boy) arrived in this country ten years prior and is now here illegally because his mom overstayed her visa – a mom who now has vowed to leave him and go back to their native, unnamed country. His friend, G, also an immigrant, raps on his bedroom window at night to escape the brutal boyfriend of her mom, a mother who is reluctant to leave that situation until her pending citizenship application is accepted. Together, B and G make up increasingly worse illnesses (cold, flu, chicken pox) that G can use to miss school rather than go and expose the bruises and cuts left by the abusive mate of her mom. Snuggled back-to-back in B’s twin bed to ward off the cold of a New Jersey winter, they find through a special friendship and kinship some welcome solace and respite from the harsh deck life has dealt them.
Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents the West Coast premiere of Martyna Majok’s Sanctuary City, a play where a teen’s hopes for the normality of a senior prom bump up against fears of giving the wrong answer to personally invasive questions from immigration officials – slip ups that could lead to immediate and permanent deportation. In the fast-paced shift of the play’s scores of scenes, chronology and sequencing are both illusive and immediate as scenes repeat with only minor alterations and as paired scenes toss and turn through differing times and moods. Yet throughout, under the direction of David Mendizábal each minute of the hour, forty-five (no intermission) is fully captivating and gripping, often leaving one hesitant to breath or move in order not to miss some brief flash of a moment that carries its own, entire storyline. With a timeline running from immediately post 9/11 to 2006, the play actually feels very 2022 as issues are raised that we as audience know were resolved in years subsequent to the play’s action by executive and court decisions but that we also know are once again under threat, given today’s Supreme Court and many conservative, state legislatures.
Working as a dishwasher with a ready mop at hand in a local restaurant, B dreams of going to college but sees no way to get there. He is caught in the same situation as thousands of other children, teens, and young adults like him, telling G, “When she [his mom] overstayed her visa [nine years prior], so did I.” When G urges him just to apply for aid to go to school, he screams in frustration that he cannot “cuz I’m not supposed to be here … We came here legal but we didn’t stay here legal …So I’m a fuckin’ criminal.”
B’s mom finally decides to go back to her native land, leaving behind a half-drunk glass of water on the kitchen table and discarded clothes tossed around her bedroom – haunting reminders that torment B of a lost mother and another sense of security now lost. At the same time, G’s mom acquires her citizenship, bringing G into legality since she is still days short of eighteen and thus a dependent. G also gets into a Boston university, with Boston becoming for her an assured sanctuary from her mother’s series of abusive boyfriends.
For B, G’s Boston is a kind of Elysium Fields of which he can only dream. In one scene, he relates sneaking onto her campus and even into a classroom to become for a few minutes a college student. As he relates to G the experience, B’s entire big-smile, wide-eyed countenance glows with the excitement that he felt when for a few minutes, it was if he were legitimate, a student, and really ‘here.’
Both Hernán Angulo and María Victoria Martínez excel in their roles as B and G. In a back-turned Yankees cap with his ears sticking out much like a puppy’s, B is often low-key in manner and casual in his movement and demeanor. With all the overwhelming stress he carries mostly on the inside, his expressions often are near blank in nature, resembling shellshock. At other times when with G, there is a genuine sweetness that emerges in his half smiles and momentary twinkling of eyes. And when senior prom becomes a real possibility, the teenager in him explodes for a few minutes of just being his age with no worries beyond how to pin a flower on the dress of his date, G, and how to be super cool on the dance floor.
G is more intense than B much of the time, more deliberate yet also more visibly cautious and apprehensive. Dressed in fatigues, she has seen the barbed wire fence of Fish Kill Road where captured, non-legal immigrants are sent; and she is terrified of being separated from her mom and sent there. But when suddenly her fortunes change all for the good, she becomes stubbornly determined to help her long-term pal and refuge, B. María Victoria Martínez is stunning in her role as G, bringing a personality that is intriguingly complex and complicated, often compassionate and caring but increasingly confounded as to her real motives and desired outcomes.
Somewhere between a slow dance at the prom and G’s getting on the bus for Boston, the two teens concoct a plan how G can ensure B is legitimate in this country – a plan that leads to their trying to memorize the same set of facts about their history together and a daily life of living together even when they are not. Like many others before and after them, a possible matrimony between two friends not yet lovers becomes the possible door to freedom for one, if they can both just recall the same toothpaste brand, third-grade teacher when they first met, and how many moles are where on the other’s body.
As boundaries between friendship and love begin to blur, playwright Martyna Majok reminds us through her brilliant and often unpredictable script that life is multi-faceted for all the individuals seeking ways to find their sanctuary. Twists and turns occur in all our lives – some unexpected and some happening in secret. While true for everyone, for the kid whose mom left him behind and undocumented, the speed and sharpness turning those corners in life becomes increasingly perilous. The sanctuary of B and G’s relationship becomes threatened by both the natural separation of one being away at school and the other not and by other forces that the playwright uses to remind us that life and love are complicated, with journeys through both rarely a straight, predictable line.
Playwright and director ensure that our attention stays fully on the actors. David Reynoso has designed a barren stage jutted against a concrete-block wall with a double set of glass doors covered in plastic and a stairway leading to a lower exit – all more resembling where someone homeless might find sanctuary on a cold, Jersey night than where the apartment that B lives. In this setting, B and G lie in an unseen bed standing up or sit only on a floor where we can assume there are really chairs. Floor lighting by Cha See defines the walls of this stark setting, while an overhead series of connections blink with quick sequences of varying patterns of fluorescent white and neon red to denote shifting scenes, with just enough occasional blue to remind us that the ‘here’ these teens want so desperately to be is the good, ol’ U.S.A.
The harshness of both the setting and the lighting as well as the booming sounds that also help separate scenes (Fan Zhang, sound designer) also remind us that the promise inscribed on the Statue of Liberty of “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” is today more a toss-up than a guarantee. Yes, for G. No, for B. And what determines the difference? Martyna Majok seems to tell us it is not necessarily hard work or living the American dream; it is a lot of luck –good, bad, and indifferent.
Into this story enters late a third person, Henry, played with emotions real and raw by Kim Fischer. His role and connection to B and G is one for the audience member to discern as the story unfolds; but the twist he brings is one that has renewed significance in 2022, given today’s Supreme Court and the possible decisions that many fear may shape this nation’s near future.
In her script, Martyna Majok has left the nationality of the actors up to the discretion of the director, only suggesting they are not of European descent. Having grown up in the U.S., B and G speak with no accent other than that of any other American kid born here. Only once does the playwright give them a chance to speak in their native language, in this case when each tells the other “buenas noches.” That they are both Latino brings added significance for the Berkeley Rep audience member, adding even more fuel for reflection and discussion as we each head home. Martyna Majok does not leave us with a story nicely resolved. She leaves us with a dilemma whose hope of resolution is with us and all Americans like us. The hope for B is in our hands as citizens, advocates, and voters.
Rating: 5 E, MUST-SEE
A Theatre Eddy’s Best Bet Production
Sanctuary City continues through August 14, 2022 in production by Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA. Tickets are available online at https://www.berkeleyrep.org or by calling the box office at 510-647-2949 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.
Photo Credits: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre