It’s a pretty simple calculation for students who work hard in school and get good grades. You graduate high school, go to college, get a job and make money. Many pathways exist for young folks to build their futures through perseverance and books, bright students rewarded for a firm commitment to their education.
For those students who fall into the category of Dreamers, young people brought to this country as small children, this can be such a cruel pipedream. Students who are locked into the shadows of society by circumstances not of their own doing is devastating. While those peers who shared classes and labs are on to their next reality, another group who occupy space in the United States due to the necessary migration decisions of their families, exit the safety net of public education and are thrust into the shadows, leaving their brilliant potential out in the cold.
Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s gripping west-coast premiere production of Martyna Majok’s Sanctuary City is a play awash in devastation, a reminder of how cruel it can be to live a life of virtue for absolutely nothing. Director David Mendizábal, who has racked up some fantastic directing and artistic director credits nationally and even regionally (2020’s acclaimed “Don’t Eat the Mangos” at the Magic Theatre), moves the piece with broad strokes of fluidity, accentuating many perilous instances that each character faces.
Two characters delve deeply into the first half of the play loaded with staccato rhythms of Majok’s fluid words, kids whose worlds are spinning as they try to figure things out and survive. There is “B” (Hernán Angulo) and his best friend “G” (María Victoria Martínez) who are both engaging with brutal calculations on how to survive in Newark, America. They are in the business of saving lives – each others, and do so with cunning, laughter, and most of all, love.
A and her mother are facing abuse from her mother’s boyfriend, but can find no solace in reporting his behavior due to their undocumented status. And B’s mother is doing what so many undocumented citizens do to survive – take under the table service jobs while being skimmed by sketchy employers. In a particularly vicious set of moments, B helps G strategize a plethora of excuses to use on the school to account for the bruised arms, blackened eyes and some long-term illnesses that could buy some time. The fear of deportation or worse, separation, is just too great of a risk for reporting horrid abuse.
There are no good options for either of these souls, or money for college. Because B’s mother is considering a return to her native country due to her son’s proximity to legal adulthood, B is facing a very real future of leaving the only home he’s ever really known.
The initial scenes, mostly due to the fact that the play moves in the manner it does, make for a bit of difficulty to grasp the honesty of the acting style, namely from Angulo. As the initial time passes and the sickening exposition turns further to action, the stakes are raised and a critical zenith has arrived, providing stronger footing.
One of the turning points in the second half of the one-act play is that G’s fortunes change due to her acquisition of naturalization papers. G can now apply for a college scholarship, but that leaves B in the lurch by default. You want to know how much this hurts B? Give a listen to his calamitous, soul-crushing monologue about the time where he snuck into a college classroom and then the dining hall. B is presented with all the possibilities that may never exist for him, Majok’s devastating, Pulitzer-pedigree writing on full display.
G can help, though. They’ve shared a platonic bed for years now, creating their very own sanctuary, moving to the middle of the aughts from 2001 when Dreamer legislation began to take root in this country. A simple marriage can solve the problem, but there are matters of logistics and the heart that make such a prospect precarious. Do you have any tattoos? What about moles? Scars or bruises? What’s your favorite part of her body?
While the first half provides snapshots of chaos, effective in its own right, the second half features some serious hunkering down, giving the overall themes of the piece its hulking weight that buckles each of the characters. This includes a new person to reckon with, B’s friend Henry (Kim Fischer). We learn that loopholes are tighter than a toy bead, and any choice to fight for freedom isn’t a choice at all, really. The play’s final fifteen minutes or so are searing perfection, ephemeral beauty built from Majok’s stunning prose, all three performers meeting each moment with grit and tenacity.
The power of the play is in how timely it is. Despite the fact that there are no requirements of what countries the characters need to be from, taking in the play at a California theatre in the Bay Area where both characters project as Latinx hits specifically and personally. The year 2006 might as well be 2022 – immigration is the ultimate issue to metaphorically connect to kicking a can down the road.
As we lean in deeper to these characters who love each other deeply in various contexts, we can find some solace – someone willing to dive into the shadows to help is inspiring. But in the most cruel devastation imaginable, it might be that same love which causes their unnecessary destruction.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents “Sanctuary City”
Written by Martyna Majok
Directed by David Mendizábal
The Word: It takes a few minutes to warm up to the play’s specific, staccato style, but once it gets moving, it goes full steam ahead and devastates. Truth and consequence is advocated by the performers in phenomenal ways.
Through Aug. 14
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA
Running time: One hour, 45 minutes with no intermission
Tickets range from $20 – $116
For tickets, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org