Steppenwolf Theatre’s ‘Sanctuary City’ Asks – Who Among Us Has a Right to Safety?

What is a sanctuary? Is it geographically bound? Or made in connection between people? Is it familiar or foreign? Does it require travel or follow you where you go? And does everyone get to have sanctuary? Is it a right? A rite of passage?

Sanctuary City explores the bounds of what sanctuary means to two New Jersey teens in the early aughts. From 2001-2007, we follow G and B through major life events– college applications, prom, familial separations, and their escape from abuse. Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Martyna Majok asserts her talent through snappy dialogue and a collision of intersecting identities. She paints both a painfully specific and yet broad picture of American immigration.

Sanctuary City is the first Steppenwolf production with both a full Membership Series run, and a full run of student matinees as part of the Steppenwolf for Young Adults series. Billing this play for young adults is a really exciting choice for Steppenwolf. Immigrant children are treated as acting adults the moment they touch down on U.S. soil. Immigrant stories, even those not intentionally written as TYA, are inherently stories for and about children. The play is challenging, it’s upsetting, and it’s familiar. 

Steppenwolf occupies a complicated place in the Chicago theater community right now. They’ve been recently under fire for laying off twelve percent of their staff in order to pour money into a bigger space with fancier facilities. They’re a leader in the theater community here and pioneers of the “gritty Chicago theater” aesthetic in their early days.

The choice to program Sanctuary City exemplifies the complicated relationship Steppenwolf has to its audience and community. The play itself is very well set up. It’s the clean, well crafted script expected on a Steppenwolf stage. Majok’s clarity and directness through storytelling is fascinating, effective and unmatched. But the characters themselves, the centers of the immigrant stories, are ethnically ambiguous. As if there is any immigrant experience that isn’t singular.  

The character descriptions in the TRW script are “G and B were born in other countries and brought to America young. Henry is first generation. Born in America of immigrant parents. All have American mouths. All raised working class.” This vagueness reverberates throughout the production, at no fault of the actors. While the actors brought beautiful and crisp specificity, the words they said didn’t match. The one-size-fits-all narrative structure seeped through the otherwise airtight point of view of the production. 

Specificity– especially when it comes to identity– is profound. That is missed in plays/productions that cast ethnically openly/ambiguously. For Steppenwolf, a major player in the theater industry, to choose a play that they can meld to be whatever narrative feels safest or most familiar, feels emblematic of their relationship to Chicago and its communities at large. 

Yaeji Kim’s set is bare and vast– a carpeted stage isolated by a tan moat that looks like a mix between dirt and cement, surrounded by an audience situated on all sides. Nothing is defined except the top of a fire escape landing. The play seems to exist in a chasm. The first half of the play is quick, jumping from scene to scene with no concern for consistency in chronology or setting. Kim’s set design is immediately justified. The audience is clinging for something to hold onto; some understanding of where we are and who is there. The characters move through the space in perfect synchronicity with Reza Behjat’s lighting. It’s smart, precise, and bold. For the whole first part of the play, the setting is completely defined by the dance between the actor and the lighting. 

The play is a beautiful night at the theater. I left feeling my heartstrings tugged upon. I was wowed by the design, and excited about the acting. Sanctuary City is an exciting, and fitting choice, in which Steppenwolf’s two main programs successfully collide. Majok’s story pierces through as a reminder of all the things we have gained since the early aughts, including the legalization of gay marriage, and the Dream Act. It is also a reminder of all the rights immigrants are still fighting for in the United States, and a call to remember our place in that fight. 

B– Grant Kennedy Lewis
G– Jocelyn Zamudio
Henry– Brandon Rivera

Director– Steph Paul
Playwright – Martyna Majok
Scenic Design– Yaeji Kim
Costume Design– Izumi Inaba
Lighting Design– Reza Behjat
Sound Design– Mikhail Fiksel
Intimacy Choreography– Greg Geffrard
Vocal Coach– Kate DeVore
Creative Producer– Patrick Zakem
Production Manager– Elise Hausken
Casting– JC Clementz, CSA
Production Stage Manager– Michelle Medvin
Assistant Stage Manager– Christine D. Freeburg & Kathleen Dickinson
Photographer – Michael Brosilow


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