Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Sanctuary City
Berkely Repertory Theatre
Review by Patrick Thomas

Maria Victoria Martinez and Hernan Angulo
Photo by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre
One of the most valuable aspects of live theatre is its ability to allow us the opportunity to experience another person's (or group's) lived experience. Or at least some of it. Certainly, television and film (and books) can open us to worlds beyond the cultural walls that can enclose us, but our empathy engines run so much more powerfully when we are in the same room with another living human being, breathing the same air as we are, and inhabiting a character with the goal of expressing for us that character's core humanity. (Or inhumanity, depending upon who they play.)

Martyna Majok's Sanctuary City, which opened this week at Berkeley Rep's Peet's Theatre, takes you on an unnerving, upsetting, yet often funny journey through the lives of two dreamers: teens who were brought to the United States as young children who must–by no fault of their own–live the uncertain life of an undocumented immigrant. Someone who, as B (Hernán Angulo) says, has to fear that every time he jaywalks he's risking deportation. B is the heart of this story, a young man of 17, seemingly ready to begin adult life and work to achieve something great. Or if not great, at least greater than his upbringing might have prepared him for. Every teen faces challenges leaving adolescence for adulthood, but B's path is a virtual minefield.

B goes to school, makes good grades (except perhaps in math), and works full time. But with his mother (who overstayed her visa nine years before) announcing that she is returning to the home country, the stress level in B's life goes to 11. Does he stay? Does he go? As an undocumented immigrant, he can't qualify for federal assistance to help pay for college, and his life now is in Newark. Making all this even more challenging is that it's 2002: September 11th was less than a year before, and immigrants, especially undocumented ones, face an existentially heightened sense of distrust and disdain.

Helping him through all this is his bestie G (María Victoria Martínez), who regularly crashes at B's apartment to escape her mother's abusive boyfriend who leaves G with wounds and bruises that require her and B to come up with excuses for her absences from school. Colds, flu, chicken pox, measles–they need them all and more.

This is all presented to us partly in several series of rapid-fire scenes punctuated with audio stings by sound designer Fan Zhang and lighting cues by designer Cha See. At first, the scenes can feel repetitive, even redundant, as the two characters cover the (seemingly) same ground over and over again. G thanks B for letting her crash at his place a dozen or more times, and B answers “OK" each time, in scenelets that may last only a few seconds, with B and G assuming only slightly different positions each time.

But as Sanctuary City moves inexorably forward in the tortuous lives of B and G (joined later by Henry, played by Kim Fisher), it begins to sink in what playwright Majok may have been after: the unceasing nature of the stress experienced by B and G. Their every day experience is one of potential harm, deportation, or abandonment. By coming back again and again to certain lines of dialogue, or specific choices B and G must make, Majok uses unsubtle–yet still almost subtextual–means to help the audience to better understand what the undocumented in the U.S. experience on a daily basis.

The performances from all three actors are vividly youthful and angsty–except perhaps for Kim Fisher's Henry, who, perhaps because as a citizen he doesn't live under the sword of detention or deportation, presents as a more privileged player who sees the challenges B and G face from the point of view of the power structure in the United States. Angulo can shift easily between a sunny teen making his way to young man facing a world that is ever-threatening to him. Martínez is wonderful as a girl who uses B's issues partly as a way of ignoring her own.

The set, by David I. Reynoso (who also did the perfectly apt costuming), is brilliantly bland: a space that feels like it could be the basement of an underfunded government agency or an ignored corner of a public school or mental hospital. It's grim and bland, yet somehow gorgeously designed. The padlocked and chained double doors at stage left serve as a constant reminder that escaping the circumstances under which B and G are confined will not be easy–or perhaps even possible. Colorful lighting cues and a spray of miniature bulbs that feel like twinkling stars add zest and energy (at appropriate times) to what as first could feel dull and tedious.

But Sanctuary City is neither of those things. Director David Mendizábal has given the play the energy of a pinball bouncing off bumpers, scoring points and ringing bells–but always looms the threat of the ball slipping past the frantic flippers of B and G as they try to find a home for themselves. In the process, they help those of us not imperiled by our citizenship status to better understand what life is like for those who are.

Sanctuary Cityruns through August 14, 2022, in at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Peet's Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Wednesday and Sunday at 7:00 p.m., and 2:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $26-$105, with discounts available for students, seniors, and groups. For tickets and information, please visit, or by calling the box office at (510) 647-2949.