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Timely and tense drama, 'Sanctuary City' makes its way to Alliance for the Arts in August

Martyna Majok’s "Sanctuary City " opened Off-Broadway in the Fall of 2019. Before its run was halted just six weeks later by the COVID pandemic, the dense drama garnered a number of awards, including the Edgerton Foundation New Play Award and a Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Theater Development Grant.

The play opens locally at the Alliance for the Arts on August 17.

Miguel Cintron directs a cast that includes his talented daughter, Isabella, along with rising stars Nicholas Salerno and Anthony Miller. Isabella and Nicholas play a couple of undocumented young adults who were brought to the United States when they were children. While the play takes place prior to DACA, their anxiety about discovery and deportation are still relevant given a recent federal court’s ruling invalidating the policy.

This is a large part of why Cintron wanted to direct the play.

“It tells a story about the kids of undocumented families - the children that actually grow up in the United States that are essentially American. Yes, they might speak the language and the culture is at home, but they know the life of an American. That’s the only thing they do know. They don’t know the life from the country that they’re from, and I like the fact that it tells their story because they didn’t have a choice in coming over to this country,” said Cintron.

While the play takes place in the context of the hot-button issue of immigration pre-DACA and the DREAMers Act, "Sanctuary City" asks three questions that transcend politics, nationality and creed:

  • What would you risk to help out a friend?
  • What do you owe someone who saved your life?
  • Are you entitled to insist that a friend keep a promise they made even though circumstances may have changed for you and them?

To underscore the fact that this story applies to all children brought to the United States by their undocumented parents regardless of nationality and country of origin, the playwright doesn’t give the central characters names. They’re referenced simply as Boy and Girl or B and G.
In the play’s early scenes, B and G are united by more than their undocumented status. B provides G with refuge from the abuse she suffers in her home. Nicholas Salerno, who plays B, explains.

“He becomes this sanctuary for her whenever she’s in this abusive household. We see a lot of the time him covering for her in school, giving her shelter,” said Salerno.

The dynamics of their friendship flip when G obtains her citizenship. Whether from a place of sisterly love or gratitude for the sanctuary B provided from her abusive household, G offers to marry B so that he can enjoy the life she now has and pursue his own slice of the American Dream.

“[G’s] motivation is just to be there for B so he can get his papers because he can’t live a full life in the United States without being documented,” observed Isabella Cintron.

However, circumstances change once G goes off to college, gets an education and samples the full life she can lead as an American citizen. Making good on her promise to marry B entails sacrificing many of the freedoms she now enjoys – as well as risking a $250,000 fine and five years in prison if they get caught. That could happen is if they fail to convince their immigration officer of the legitimacy of their relationship – or if immigration finds out that B has been involved in a relationship with a law student by the name of Henry for more than two years. Since loyalty is a two-way street, that’s a risk G’s simply not willing to accept.

G: Okay, so you go marry someone.
B and Henry: What?
G: If it’s so easy, then you go marry someone and help her.
Henry: This isn’t a trade.
G: Then you can’t know how scary this is. You can’t tell me s… about this.”

Rather than go through with the fake marriage to G at the expense of his relationship with Henry, B asks Henry to come with him back to B’s country of origin. And that’s a bridge too far for Henry.

“When B invites Henry to go back to the original country, Henry is very hesitant because he’s built his life here,” remarked Anthony Miller. “He’s worked so hard getting into college, and getting his parents naturalized, and I think Henry’s thought about moving someplace else is that they’re not going to be accepted, not because they’re illegal this time, but because they are gay.”

Through scenes like these, Sanctuary City highlights the dilemma faced by those brought to this country as children by undocumented immigrants. Not only are they denied the ability to realize their full potential, they must watch from the sidelines as others claim their share of the American dream – as B sums up in this cathartic scene:

“Do we have to do this? Is all of this worth it? I’ve been hiding and lying for the past 13 years of my … For every …. For basic human … Because I didn’t get some paper, it means I can’t be a full person here. I have had to hide who I am at every f…ing turn of my life.”

Sanctuary City plays in the Foulds Theater at the Alliance for the Arts August 17th through the 27th.


  • Click here for play dates, times and ticket information.
  • Playwright Martyna Majok received the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play Cost of Living. Read here to find out more about her other plays, awards and theatrical credits.
  • With Sanctuary City, Majok confronts what we’re willing to sacrifice for someone we love. “Some of the things I'm exploring are the extent to which we help when we can, how much we are willing to care for and sacrifice for another person, and the cost of that, for both sides, particularly when coming from a world of limited means and guarantees,” says Majok.
  • While the play is titled Sanctuary City, it is not about the so-called states and cities throughout the country that have adopted policies that discourage discourages local law enforcement from reporting the immigration status of individuals unless it involves investigation of a serious crime. Rather, the title is derived from the sanctuary that B and G offer each other over the course of the play.
  • This theme is announced from the play’s seminal moment, when G, a high school co-ed, bangs loudly on a fourth floor window seeking refuge in her friend’s apartment from the abuse inflicted on her and her mom by her mother’s husband, which they cannot report for fear of being deported.
  • Sanctuary City follows a pair of teenage immigrants, one recently naturalized and the other undocumented, who hatch a plan to keep the latter in the U.S. The action takes place in Newark during the early 2000s when the DREAM Act was proposed and young immigrants hoped it might be a resolution to their uncertain status.
  • “Most of the time when you see a story about immigration, it’s the person that barely speaks English,” notes Director Miguel Cintron. “They’re trying to get work. They’re trying to get documented … and that’s an important story as well … but you don’t really see a lot of stories about the kids that grow up here. They speak perfect English. They grew up in the United States. They eat American food. They are part of the culture. But they don’t have the documentation to keep them in the country. So that’s an important story to tell and I like that because it’s just not the stereotypical immigrant story.”
  • Cintron was also drawn to the play because of its LGBTQ+ sub-plot. “That’s another thing I like about the show. It tackles immigration and it also tackles the LGBTQ aspect and, again, that’s part of our youth, part of our generation.”
  • In Isabella Cintron’s estimation, her character, G, is not only incredibly intelligent, she’s a survivor. She survived an abusive home. She survived being undocumented. And she thrived going leaving Newark and going to college in Boston completely on her own.
  • While G considers herself to be a loving and loyal friend, she has difficulty keeping the promises she makes over the course of the play. “But her heart is always in the right place,” Director Miguel Cintron contends.
  • While G and B do not have a romantic relationship, G does get jealous when she discovers that B has been in a relationship with a boy named Henry for more than two years. But it’s the type of jealousy that a friend experiences when they discover that someone close to them has been keeping part of their life a secret. “Her acting out about Henry isn’t coming from a place of romance,” Isabella Cintron argues, “it’s coming from a place of jealousy that someone else has a deep connection with B. It’s coming from ‘I can’t believe there’s someone else that actually has almost the same connection that I do with my best friend.”
  • Isabella Cintron has been on stage since she was six weeks old, and while she has played numerous roles since then, playing G presents a unique challenge “because, thankfully, I’ve never had to endure the abuse that this character endures in the play.”
  • Henry also experiences jealousy when it comes to G. “Henry wasn’t worried about G until he walked in on them showing each other’s scars,” observes Anthony Miller, who portrays Henry. “Then he started to get worried.” But not because he felt that G poses a romantic threat, but because he’s afraid of the despair and depression B is likely to go through if G backs out of her promise to marry him so that he can stay in the country.
  • Henry experiences a moral dilemma of his own in Sanctuary City. If he remains romantically involved with B, G may decide not to go through with their fake marriage, and that will condemn B to a life of 10-hour shifts with no benefits, continual stress and no chance at getting a slice of the American Dream for himself.
  • Immigrants who obtain citizenship typically go on to become productive members of American society. For example, the vast majority of the 832,881 applicants who’ve received DACA status have experienced pronounced upward mobility in their socioeconomic status. A national survey of DACA recipients conducted in August and September of 2019 found that 58 percent of respondents moved on to a job with better pay, while 48 percent moved to a job with better working conditions and 53 percent moved to a job with health insurance or other benefits. Moreover, 53 percent of respondents moved to a job that “better fits [their] education and training” and 52 percent moved to a job that “better fits [their] long-term career goals.” Six percent started their own businesses, while 17 percent obtained professional licenses.
  • According to the results of the 2019 survey and four previous annual surveys, the average hourly wage of respondents increased by 86 percent after receiving DACA, rising from $10.46 per hour to $19.45 per hour. This not only helped 79 percent of respondents to “become financially independent,” but benefited the U.S. economy by increasing their purchasing power and tax payments at the federal, state, and local levels. For instance, 60 percent of respondents said that they bought their first car after receiving DACA, which boosted auto sales and generated sales tax revenue together with registration and title fees. Similarly, 14 percent of respondents said they bought their first home after receiving DACA, which had comparable ripple effects throughout the economy.
  • Another nationwide study found that DACA recipients have also benefited from much greater psychological well-being. Specifically, DACA “led to an overall decrease in stress, helping them to perform better in their jobs and in their studies.” DACA recipients reported renewed hope for the future, a greater sense of belonging to U.S. society, and less fear of the police and other government authorities.
  • Households containing DACA recipients pay $5.6 billion in federal taxes and $3.1 billion in state and local taxes each year. Roughly 56,000 DACA recipients are homeowners who make $566.9 million in mortgage payments each year.
  • DACA recipients who are not homeowners pay $2.3 billion in rent each year. Households containing DACA recipients have $24 billion in after-tax spending power.
  • The pain, sadness and resentment that the children of undocumented immigrants feel as they watch their friends pursue the American Dream can be profound. It is for B, as Nicholas Salerno points out. “As G goes off to college and he is stuck without being able to progress further in his life, we kind of see how that has an effect on him. How, like, he had this moment where he has the solution to all of his problems, and then it kind of dissipates. And then throughout the script, there’s a time skip where we see how that’s had an effect on him, and how he was there for her whenever she needed someone, but whenever he needed her, she kind of disappeared.”
  • B also feels a sense of entitlement to the help that G offered. “He has given her that kind of help whenever she needed it,” Salerno observes. “So he’s a bit entitled to her help, but it is a lot to ask for. They would both be risking everything that they have, so it’s kind of like a double-sided situation where yes he is asking a lot at the same time she was promising that to him at one point.

To read more stories about the arts in Southwest Florida visit Tom Hall's website: SWFL Art in the News.

Spotlight on the Arts for WGCU is funded in part by Naomi Bloom, Jay & Toshiko Tompkins, and Julie & Phil Wade.