by Brittany Crowell
In its fourth definition, Merriam Webster defines sanctuary as “protection from danger or a difficult situation that is provided by a safe place.” In Sanctuary City, Martyna Majok’s characters are searching for this space – in country; in home; in family; in love; in each other.
Set in post-2001 Newark, the piece follows the memories of two children brought to America at an early age. The play, presented by New York Theatre Workshop at the Lucile Lortel Theater under direction of Rebecca Frecknall, starts with snapshots from these characters’ lives. Simultaneously beautiful and haunting, we see as she knocks on his window looking for sanctuary; we watch as she calls out of school because she’s run out of excuses for the cuts and bruises left by her stepfather; we celebrate the chicken milanese and chicken bolognese that she shares; we mourn the loss of his mother; we cringe with them as they falter through high school prom together.
Some moments repeat themselves, making us wonder – is this a true snapshot of the past, or a fallible memory, skipping and repeating the moments that were the hardest or hurt the most, trying to recall correctly, the lens changing slightly with each remembering.
Even through these brief encounters, the small cast fills the space. Sharlene Cruz (G) is a dynamic stage presence, bringing energy to each remembering and jumping from joy to fear to sadness as the memories flash before us. Jasai Chase-Owens (B) plays a character with less security and sanctuary in America, which comes through in his reserved though multi-dimensional performance.
The second half of the piece drops us into a more grounded environment as the space, previously a wooden square surrounded by exposed theatrical and industrial equipment (scenic design by Tom Scutt), expands to fill the theatrical space. We follow the characters (with the addition of Austin Smith who plays a strong, beautiful, and vulnerable Henry) in real time, during one final night where B’s future in America is put to the test.
I must also mention the shocking and unnerving lighting and sound design by Isabella Byrd and Mikaal Sulaiman, respectively. Their flashes and clicks, brightness juxtaposed with pallor mirrored by drones next to crickets or muted rainfall, transport us through time and space. Time seems to shift around us as the shadows of the actors move across the room and jump from wall to floor between remembered moments.
Sanctuary City is not merely a memory play, but a snapshot of a time in America when safety was lost; a time just after the attacks on September 11th, but before DACA and the legalizing of gay marriage across the country. While the piece is set in the early 2000s, its themes and message resound quite loudly today, asking us to look personally, socially, and politically at what it takes to find sanctuary in America.
SANCTUARY CITY – by Martyna Majok; directed by Rebecca Frecknall.
WITH: Jasai Chase-Owens (B), Sharlene Cruz (G); Austin Smith (Henry)
Sets and costumes by Tom Scutt; lighting by Isabella Byrd; sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman; stage management by Merrick A.B. Williams; remount direction by Caitlin Sullivan. Presented by New York Theatre Workshop: James C. Nicola, artistic director; Jeremy Blocker, managing director. At the Lucile Lortel Theatre (120 Christopher Street); 212-460-5475; https://www.nytw.org/show/sanctuary-city/tickets/; Through October 10.