Chicago is an immigrant city. The first wave of European immigrants arrived in the 1840s and 50s, and from the 1920s-onward, Chicago would become home to immigrants from Mexico, Poland, Vietnam, Nigeria, Palestine, and many more countries from around the world. This can be seen today—from the North Side’s diverse West African and South Asian communities, to the ethnic enclaves in the South Side like Chinatown and Pilsen. The city has enacted policies over the past few decades to make Chicago a sanctuary city that provides certain protections for immigrants, such as placing restrictions on ICE cooperating with local police.
Steppenwolf Theatre’s recent production Sanctuary City examines the life of two young immigrants living in New Jersey and the obstacles they have to hurdle because of the country in which they were born.
Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and University of Chicago alum Martyna Majok, Sanctuary City follows two young DREAMers—undocumented residents who were brought to the U.S. as children and would benefit from proposed federal legislation known as the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. The DREAMers go by B (Grant Kennedy Lewis) and G (Jocelyn Zamudio). B is a well-meaning and ambitious student who prioritizes his education, but due to his mother’s decision to overstay their visa, he can’t take out any loans or financial aid to apply for school, causing him immense stress. G takes school much less seriously and often provides comic relief, but also lives in a toxic household with her mother and her mother’s abusive boyfriend. As such, G often spends the night at B’s apartment, and this is how the story begins, with G knocking on B’s bedroom window and convincing him to let her stay the night.
From here, their relationship evolves in a nonlinear format. Taking place in New Jersey in the aftermath of 9/11, the first half of the play features B and G going back and forth in a series of flashbacks that build exposition on their history as friends and status as immigrants. B’s situation becomes increasingly difficult after he decides to stay in New Jersey to pursue an education while his mom returns to their home country that is not specified. G, on the other hand, is eventually naturalized after her mother passes her citizenship test, and they both finally leave their abusive living situation. With G now a citizen, she and B come up with a plan to marry so that B can get his green card, further strengthening their bond.
The flashbacks eventually all lead to three and a half years later when the duo are reunited after their initial plan goes awry in the wake of post-9/11 America’s hyper surveillance of immigrants and the passage of the Patriot Act. It’s in this second half that the play goes from good to great with riveting and heart-wrenching dialogue, as the two accuse one another of emotional betrayal and unearth secrets they’ve kept hidden from each other. B’s new roommate Henry (Brandon Rivera) adds a dynamic voice of reason between the two estranged friends.
Lewis and Zamudio played the two leads with impeccable chemistry, absolutely carrying much of the show as the only two characters on the stage for most of its run time. Zamudio’s timing with G’s sarcastic humor helped bring much-needed laughs to an otherwise heartbreaking story, while Lewis’s performance provided an emotional anchor. Their execution of B and G’s “will they, won’t they” tension is done with believable performances, and Rivera delivered a scene-stealing performance in his own right as the energetic and passionate Henry.
All in all, Sanctuary City, which runs until November 18, is an incredible commentary on the burdens that many immigrants have to carry to have a chance at a good life in the United States, due to the government’s policies that criminalize their existence.
The title of this play is a reference to the policy that offers protections to undocumented immigrants from ICE in certain cities across the country. This policy has contributed to the decision by Republican governors Greg Abbot in Texas, and Ron DeSantis in Florida, to bus thousands of Central and South Americans seeking asylum to Chicago, which has sparked controversy in neighborhoods across the city. Attempts by mutual aid groups and the city to provide for and house these migrants has drawn ire from long-time community members who feel they’re receiving the short end of the stick due to already limited resources and overcrowded shelters, and some alderpersons have proposed revoking some of Chicago’s sanctuary city policies.
Given the recent timing of Central American migrants seeking asylum in Chicago, Steppenwolf is partnering with the Community Care Network, a mutual aid network that supports migrants in the 33th Ward, which includes parts of Avondale, Irving Park, Albany Park, and Ravenswood.
In a country where xenophobic politicians and conservative news media try to vilify migrants for no other reason than simply being different, stories like Sanctuary City that shed light on the lives of the unseen and give a platform for the voices of the unheard are needed.
Alejandro Hernandez is a freelance writer born and raised in Chicago. Growing up in the city gave him the sense of perspective that can be found in his work. With combined experience doing broadcast and written journalism, Alejandro has been actively documenting the stories of everyday Chicagoans for over seven years.