Metro Weekly

‘Sanctuary City’ Review: Chasing the Dream

"Sanctuary City" keenly examines two DREAMers and their struggle to plant their lives on the solid ground of citizenship

Sanctuary City -- Photo: Kevin Berne-Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Sanctuary City — Photo: Kevin Berne-Berkeley Repertory Theatre

A humane indictment of this country’s broken, bedeviled immigration system, Sanctuary City (★★★☆☆), by Pulitzer-winner Martyna Majok, asks pertinent questions about who’s afforded which rights and privileges in the United States.

Following two young DREAMers, B (Hernán Angulo) and G (María Victoria Martínez), in their years-long pursuit of answers to those questions, Majok’s heartfelt drama — shot through with a streak of sarcastic humor — aligns its sympathies with those kids who feel unclaimed by their adopted homeland.

B and G, and others like them, survive in a state of perpetual uncertainty. By contrast, this lean, nimble production, freshly transferred, cast and all, from its well-reviewed run at Berkeley Rep Theatre, lands on Arena’s Kreeger stage looking assured and alert.

Taking the reins from original director David Mendizábal, who staged the show in Berkeley, director Cara Hinh and the well-tuned cast have Majok’s fast-paced dialogue and scene changes firing consistently.

At first, the play, set in the early 2000s, pulses through B and G’s story in quick flashes, glimpses, and snatches of scenes from their lives. As kids, she climbs up the fire escape to hang out all night in his room, avoiding the fighting and abuse at home with her mom and mom’s latest deadbeat boyfriend.

B’s mom brought him over as a kid, then overstayed her visa, cementing their illegal immigration status. As a smart, hopeful high school senior, he wants to go to college, but he can’t apply for federal aid because he’s not supposed to be here.

Angulo makes B’s mounting stress, doubt, and anxiety dearly felt, especially as B’s mother starts talking of moving back to their native country, leaving him alone in the only home he knows — if he chooses to stay.

His options are limited, and the idea of packing up his dreams to start life anew in an unfamiliar land just seems untenable. His friendship with G is his only lifeline. They rely on each other for comfort, support, shelter, and even more.

Angulo and Martínez, in their accumulating snippets of scenes, sketch a layered, authentic rapport between B and G. Their close friendship might morph into romance, although something just beneath the surface appears to hold them back.

The actors don’t hold back in portraying the characters’ hunger and vulnerability. And they volley Majok’s rat-a-tat lines impressively, often switching rapidly between conversations taking place in different locations and time periods. Cha See’s well-timed lighting, and Fan Zhang’s evocative sound design offer a strong assist in easing those transitions.

Yet, despite the performers’ technical flair, the lightning-round rhythm is a challenge to connect to, as the narrative adds up in bite-size chunks of drama and exposition.

Ultimately, as a structural adventure, it feels like an uphill climb to reach City‘s peak, a final act that plays out in one lengthy, uninterrupted, and riveting scene between B, G, and B’s roommate Henry, a fiery addition to the party thanks to Kim Fischer’s confident portrayal.

In a confrontation set years after B and G decided to marry but didn’t, neither of them has yet found the place and life that feels completely like home. At that point, B’s been waiting years for Congress to pass the DREAM Act, a legal avenue to rights and privileges he’s been denied.

The fight for LGBTQ marriage rights also looms over their lives. It’s years before the Obergefell decision, and legal status as an American citizen doesn’t ensure everyone equal access to pursue their dreams. Truthfully, it never did, and it won’t, unless B and G and all of us hold the nation to its promise.

Sanctuary City runs through Nov. 27 at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. SW. Tickets are $56 to $95. Call 202-488-3300, or visit www.arenastage.org.

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