The United States’ stance on immigration is confusing.
Emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty, “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus reads, “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free… send these, the homeless, tempest tossed to me.” Meanwhile, media companies produce twenty-four-hour news cycles demonizing images of huddled masses of exhausted immigrants at the Southern border.
In May of 2018, a former U.S. president claimed that California’s “sanctuary city” policies were helping criminals, but said that he wasn’t anti-immigrant, just that “we want people based on merit.”
This paradox is the cultural backdrop behind “Sanctuary City” at Steppenwolf Theatre, written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Martyna Majok and directed by Steph Paul. The play asks the question: What do you do if simply existing makes you a criminal, a fact that no amount of merit can override?
“Sanctuary City” focuses on a young man called B (Grant Kennedy Lewis), a “dreamer” brought to the United States by parents who were themselves illegal aliens. He studies hard and gets excellent grades—plenty of “merit”—but his undocumented status makes him ineligible for federal scholarships. He can pay his own way, but his status excludes him from taking substantial employment—under-the-table restaurant work is all he can get.
The only thing keeping B sane is his friendship with G (Jocelyn Zamudio), a street-smart young woman and fellow “dreamer” who suffers abuse by her mother’s current boyfriend. These two outsiders help each other navigate a society that seems hellbent on forcing them out.
When G’s mother gains citizenship, B and G hatch a plan to get married—although their relationship is strictly platonic—so that B can finally live a normal life.
But time has a way of eroding even the best-laid plans.
The set is mostly devoid of scenery, and director Paul uses quick pacing and creative lighting to accentuate the actors’ performances.
A scene might last a minute before jumping to the next. One second B and G are in a dimly lit bedroom, then rotate into glowing rectangles, then leave the stage to prowl the perimeter lit by overhead LEDs—artfully created by lighting designer Reza Behjat. Far from being jarring, the non-chronological plot drops moments like puzzle pieces that reveal the big picture.
Those with an eye for detail will find “Sanctuary City” a rewarding experience. The fact that the characters barely touch adds tension; but when they do, the slightest brush of a palm against a cheek is a delicate crescendo that elicits gasps from the audience.
The actors move about the space as if they are floating. The rapid staging is so fluid that one forgets the strict placement necessary to hit every light cue. Those delighted by the intricate spacing will not be surprised to learn about Paul’s dance background (Be The Groove, Chicago Dance Crash).
There is a twist at the end when love interest Henry (Brandon Rivera) threatens to break B and G apart. An ultimatum is given between love and citizenship, relationships are torn asunder and opportunities are squandered by spite. I won’t spoil the surprise, but I can say that the climax, set in the early 2000s, is truly heartbreaking, especially from the vantage point of the now-present future.
“Sanctuary City” is a wakeup call, shining a light on those human beings who under law don’t technically exist, those “dreamers” with little or no chance at the American dream. When hope is gone, the best we can do is to offer sanctuary.
“Sanctuary City” runs through November 18 in Second City’s Ensemble Theater, 1664 North Halsted. Single tickets start at $20 and are available at steppenwolf.org.