In the wake of the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers, as lethal smoke and dust afflicted first responders who converged upon Ground Zero, a wave of xenophobia began to sweep across America. Muslims and air travel were the prime targets of paranoia and impulsive policy adjustments in the early days, with follies in Iraq and Afghanistan soon to follow. As Martyna Majok’s Sanctuary City demonstrates, the seismic shock of the attack and the insidious xenophobia it unleashed were keenly felt across the Hudson River in Newark, New Jersey, where her two teenage protagonists face uncertain futures as undocumented Latinx immigrants.
Adapting a thrust-stage configuration at the Arts Factory black box, director Caroline Bower places the audience close to the action — and to the hearts of Majok’s teens as they navigate their treacherous paths to adulthood and possible U.S. citizenship. We may look down pityingly on the adolescent recklessness and naivete of B and G, the generic names our playwright assigns to her main characters. G has a litany of fictional excuses for her serial truancies at school, but she can still coach B on his math homework.
Yet there’s plenty here in this Three Bone Theatre production, which runs through Nov. 20, to rattle our smug complacency. Humble and ignorant as they may seem, both B and G often school us in the brambly terrain of daily life in a Sanctuary City and the vagaries of U.S. immigration law. As we will see, their paranoia wasn’t over-the-top in 2001, when most of us would have been skeptical, and their fears proved prophetic 15 years later when MAGA morons began to dominate our national discourse.
G needs to fabricate reasons for skipping school because the welts and bruises that keep appearing on her face and limbs might be noticed by teachers, prompting a home visit from social services, a check of her mom’s immigration papers, a disclosure that her work visa expired years ago, and a swift deportation. Instead, B must tell G’s teachers that she is bedridden with flu until her black eye has cleared up.
Nor does B have it easy just because his mother isn’t tyrannized by a drunken, sadistic SOB. He and his mom can be easily shortchanged on their wages, since they have no legal recourse unless they’re willing to risk deportation. Indeed, it’s B’s mom, not G’s, who gets collared and deported. Paradoxically, Northerners can be smug and complacent in their convictions that such deportations define the inhumanity of red border states in the South, and that heartless immigration feds are to blame for cruelly separating Latinx families.
Wrong on both counts, Majok reminds us. By not seeking out federal assistance in clearing out undocumented immigrants, Sanctuary Cities do not prevent the feds from swooping in, and it’s federal immigration law that discriminates between parents and their children. When B learns that his mom has been nabbed, he must make the painful call on whether to board the plane with her.
Bad news or good news often arrives suddenly, as G climbs up the fire escape to B’s bedroom after dark and he mimes a window to let her in. Or occasionally the simple Bunny Gregory set design transforms and B visits G’s place to bring her some urgent news. Neither B nor G has any furnishings until years after B’s mom has been deported and he’s forced to survive on his own.
Meanwhile, G’s mom evolves after seeming to start out a hopeless doormat, according to her daughter’s early reports. She sheds her abuser, secretly studies for and passes her citizenship exam, and achieves the naturalization that eluded B’s mom. In the blink of an eye, G is a “legal” as well, able to pursue higher education beyond a Newark community college when she graduates high school. Just as suddenly, since both of them know the laws, G can help B reach the same goals: citizenship plus education.
Isabel Gonzalez as G sparkles in the rapid-fire scenes with Gus Zamudio as B that open Sanctuary City. Some are brief flashbacks and flash-forwards, others a series of riffs on recurring events, and still others are jump cuts between parallel events in the characters’ lives.
Making her Charlotte debut last year, portraying 10-year-old Paloma in Children’s Theatre’s Tropical Secrets, Gonzalez doesn’t have to regress nearly as far to bring us all the adolescent vitality, anxiety, and ambivalence of G. Somehow, it’s through Gonzalez and her wary intimacy with her bestie that I began to grasp why Northerners and Southerners alike fathom so little about how immigrants live in citizenship limbo. They’re a secret — and secretive — society who can only truly trust each other.
When Grant Cunningham entered as Henry deep into the second half of this no-intermission production, more than a couple of notable shifts came into play, including two new plot twists and an abrupt change in pacing as Majok’s script settled into one extended closing scene. All three actors quickly rev up intensity as the cluster of revelations forces them to rapidly shift their perspectives on each other.
I couldn’t help feeling impressed by the melee and how well Cunningham fit into it, and I couldn’t help smiling when I saw the blind spot they all shared, for we have seen the social and political progress that can happen in less than two decades.
Henry, the first character we encounter here with a full name, also comes equipped with a fuller character. Yes, he seems far more confident that he belongs here, and as a law student, far more definite about who he is and what he aspires to be. Gradually, he brings out one of the playwright’s salient points: that B’s plight not only focuses him sharply on the niceties of immigration law and enforcement but makes him adept at attaching himself to people he can use to help his cause.
But really, I didn’t think arriving at that point was as important as the basic heartbeat of what Majok leaves us to speculate about: What specifically are these DREAMer hopefuls’ dreams? What aspirations stir their souls as they struggle to emerge from the shadows into full American lives?
A little more of that kind of intimate disclosure would have helped the emotional magnitude of Sanctuary City to align better with its cerebral clout. Even the dimwitted Lenny in Of Mice and Men had his rabbits to break our hearts. So even a Lin-Manuel Miranda bodega would help Majok’s taut drama — with a few stray spritzes of comedy — to sprout a little more Latinx color. (And we shouldn’t have to Google a New York Times review or call upon Three Bone Theatre’s playbill to inform us that the drama is happening in Newark.)
More urban and aspirational detail would certainly make Majok’s brew more combustible, but Gonzalez, Zamudio, and Cunningham deliver plenty of firepower.