Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Their story begins in 2001, shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City. B's mother, who has worked in a string of low-level jobs cleaning homes and in restaurant kitchens, has decided to "go home." We're never told where that is, but it's a place that B barely remembers. He doesn't really want to accompany her, but remaining has its own set of terrors. G's mother has found herself in a series of abusive relationships that have expanded to make G miserable, and we meet her at the play's beginning as she pounds on B's apartment window from a fire escape, seeking refuge from one more beating. Newark is a "sanctuary city" where local officials don't report illegal aliens to immigration enforcement agents, but their sanctuary is, in fact, built more on each other than on any protection the city provides, and their perilous, fragile existence is constantly in doubt.
The 17-year-olds were high school friends, but G's repeated visits to escape her home life deepen their relationship as they share B's single bed. It's not exactly romantic, but it's a profound friendship. She frets, "Your mother will think we're sleeping together"; he retorts, "We are sleeping together." While Majok's subject matter is frighteningly serious, she leavens the tension with moments of sharp teenage wit.
Their evolving time together is presented in brief staccato scenes, some amusing, some furious, that are not necessarily chronological and often repetitive with minor variations. Thanks to director Kareem Fahmy's quick-take, minimalist staging, augmented by Alexander Woodward's stark set (a revolving rectangular box), Heather Gilbert's sharp lighting shifts, and Megumi Katayama's soundscape with bursts of pulsing sound, we have a sense of time passing, even as their existence remains desperate, on the brink of possible emergency.
The circumstances change when G's mother obtains her naturalization papers and becomes a citizen, making it possible for G to apply to college in Boston. What's more, now with citizen status, she could offer B the possibility of obtaining a green card. Their relationship, still told through these stuttering scenes, becomes a rehearsal of questions and fabricated answers about marriage in anticipation of questioning by immigration officials.
For the second portion of Sanctuary City, Majok advances the story to 2006 and changes to a dramatically naturalistic style. Perhaps this is a jump from nervous teens whose minds leap back and forth somewhat erratically to more mature twentysomethings with some new, serious adult concerns. B is increasingly frustrated, trapped in low-paying blue-collar employment; G, more privileged, has been in college for several years. Their plan to enable him to get his green card has been on hold. During the holidays, she comes to visit him. But the presence of a boyfriend (Debo Balogun) and resulting complications mean past plans and ongoing intentions are on shaky ground.
The stylistic departure of this segment of Sanctuary City is not as theatrically satisfying as the opening scenes of the 75-minute production (no intermission). Emotions run painfully high in a series of escalating arguments, characters are not quite as engaging, and the resolution is a serious downer. Of course, that's part of the point of Majok's exploration of the plight of young people caught in the political imbroglio of immigration that taints and twists their fraught relationship. Danan and Arredondo are fine actors who excel as the teens and just slightly less so as the combative pair of Dreamers whose paths and perceptions have diverged, even if their needs and desires have not.
That being said, Sanctuary City is an important play on a topic that's both troubling and timely, and Majok's writing is an opportunity for Cincinnati theatregoers to gain insight into issues that need understanding in today's America.
Sanctuary City runs through October 22, 2023, at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, 962 Mt. Adams Circle in Eden Park, adjacent to Mt. Adams, Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please visit cincyplay.com or call 513-421-3888.