In contemporary US political language, a sanctuary city is a city where the local government has agreed not to assist our larger, federal government with immigration and deportation enforcement. Newark, New Jersey—where Third Rail Repertory’s latest production Sanctuary City is set—is one such municipality. It became one in 2017, around the same time as Portland—though Oregon has been a sanctuary state since 1987.

One would be right to infer from the title that Sanctuary City centers around the experiences of people traversing our country’s convoluted immigration system. But if for some reason you anticipate a one-note lecture about the pain of undocumented lives, this isn’t that. 

Sanctuary City is a gorgeously directed and acted mosaic of lived experiences, which we must work hard to assemble into a narrative. Doing so is work, but deeply rewarding.

Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Martyna Majok—who emigrated to the US from Poland when she was five years old—the play expands out predominantly through the interactions of just two teenagers: B (Ezri Reyes) and G (Melory Mirashrafi).

Each came as a young child to America; each, with their parents, overstayed their visas, and thus are undocumented. They listen to each other and protect each other–emotionally and physically—from the daily pains and affronts of their undocumented status, but also from the trauma or chaos of their family lives. 

This isn’t adolescent angst; it is realistic reportage. The mother of one of the teens manages to obtain US citizenship, which extends to her child as well. The teens hatch a plan to marry, which will solve their citizenship (and relationship) status. In order to do so, they rehearse answers to a sadistic and intrusive citizenship interview. 

Majok’s script weaves shards of these characters' lives into a complicated mosaic of domestic abuse, resilience, opportunity, betrayal (perceived or otherwise), bitterness, unflagging love, and survival. The production’s director Cristi Miles has in turn deftly assembled the work’s emotions, actions, and paradoxes into a coherent, nuanced whole. 

The story itself is difficult to discuss because of what we learn as the play progresses. Though presented in a single 95-minute act, the narrative eventually breaks into two parts with the introduction of a third character: self-assured law student Henry (Brave Sohacki). This second section sharpens the subtexts of the first. 

The intention behind B’s paradoxical actions and choices—which left B running in circles, mounting and dismounting the stage, and speaking in broken sentences throughout the first portion—become clear.

Majok’s previous plays have centered people experiencing disability, poverty, insecurity, and immigration strife, but her characters are far from sermonizing stick figures. They are humans who bleed, betray, dissemble, love, betray, and show kindness. 

Come for the pain and chaos of Sanctuary City, stay for the meditation on betrayal, concealment, and abiding hope. 

Third Rail Repertory Theatre presents Sanctuary City at CoHo Theatre, 2257 NW Raleigh Thurs—Sun, through March 17, $0-$47, tickets here, non-graphic discussion of domestic abuse and references to suicide and depression.