‘Sanctuary City’ explores the pitfalls of the American immigration system
The senior thesis project premiers this week at the Theater and Performance Studies Black Box.
Luciana Varkevisser, Contributing Photographer
“Sanctuary City,” premiering from Feb. 8 to 10, explores themes of friendship, love and the meaning of home under the pressures of the American immigration system.
The play — written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Martyna Majok DRA ’12 — is the thesis project for director David DeRuiter ’24 and actor Lauren Marut ’25. This work tells the story of an unnamed boy and girl as they grapple with the uncertainty of their futures. As undocumented immigrants, the boy and girl face daunting trials and choices not typically represented in coming-of-age stories.
“It’s all about the influence of memory,” DeRuiter said. “[It’s] on how we define our morality, our relationships and I would say the inverse too.”
DeRuiter was introduced to “Sanctuary City” by Marut, who encountered the show via an advertisement looking for understudies.
What piqued her interest in the show, however, was more than just a challenging script and nuanced plot, but the character descriptions.
“I don’t think I’ve actually ever played someone who’s mixed or someone who’s Asian on stage where that’s part of their character description,” Marut said. “It’s not just about — oh I’m Asian and so when I stepped into this role the character becomes Asian. A role that has been written with an Asian actor in mind or mixed race actor in mind, I’ve never had the chance to play.”
According to the playwright Majok, the play was written to encourage inclusive casting for actors of various backgrounds and non-Western European origins.
Marut emphasized that this is by no means a “knock” on Yale theater, but rather a critique of the theater community at large.
“As adept as theater is at enfranchising people, and conferring existence, and capital, and cultural and social-political spheres, it’s equally adept at disenfranchising groups with lack of earnest, authentic, or any representation,” said Marut. “And so, in that vein, I think we see a lot of theatres at Yale, and also beyond make a really pointed effort to include and make room for people of color in theater spaces. However, it’s not just about who is playing the roles, it’s whether or not the stories are written for people of color to play them.”
Marut said that she believes Yale is going in the right direction when it comes to uplifting student work. She referenced the production she produced last year, “For Colored Girls,” which was an original musical adaptation of the choreo-poem by Ntozake Shange.
“For Colored Girls,” Marut said, provided an opportunity for Black students at Yale to be part of a show that was written for Black women and to reflect the experiences of Black women.
“Sanctuary City,” Marut said, is a play that is written specifically for underrepresented actors.
“No character, however, is a Western European origin/ethnicity, or from a country of greater liberalism in the United States,” Marut cited from the playwright’s character descriptions.
The play exposes the faults in the American immigration system, specifically as it relates to children brought into the United States undocumented by their parents or guardians.
G — the unnamed leading female role of the show played by Marut— seeks a sanctuary from her toxic home. She finds that sanctuary in B — the unnamed leading male role of the show played by Jordi Betrán Ramírez ’24. B’s search for sanctuary is ongoing throughout the play, and one might argue that he never finds it.
The first act is a series of memories. The actors flash — literally and figuratively — through roughly seventy scenes, accompanied by changes in light and sound effects. Some scenes are as long as a few minutes, while others last barely one.
Lighting plays a crucial role in differentiating between memories. It matches the tone — deep blue lights for somber scenes — while also adding unique creative elements to the piece such as spotlights, disco lights and lightbulbs.
Several lightbulbs hang from the ceiling of the theater and hover over the stage. In certain scenes, the lightbulbs sequentially turn on as tension builds. Other times, a single light bulb turns on every time a memory repeats itself, notably during the rapid sequence in which G repeatedly asks B if she can spend the night at his house.
Rapid memory sequences, such as the one described above, invite the audience to think about how much of the scene is real and how much of it has been skewed by memory.
Since the chronology of the first act is a bit elusive and ambiguous, it is up to the audience to “lean into the abstraction” DeRuiter said.
One of the most heart wrenching uses of the lightbulbs was at the end of the first act. The entire stage goes black, except for two lights. Alone amid a sea of darkness, the two bulbs are an apt metaphor for the experiences of the main characters of the play.
In the first act, Marut and Ramirez use an empty stage to craft an intricate, deep and emotional story of two children forced to make decisions and deal with horrible situations that most adults couldn’t manage. From abusive stepfathers to absent mothers to marriages of convenience, these teenagers fight their way through these battles that are all the more difficult due to their status as undocumented immigrants.
The actors are raw, unfiltered and expressive. In the first act they could only rely on themselves to “maneuver the plot” said Marut. However, in the intermission, the set goes from abstract to concrete.
This change in the set not only symbolizes a change in time — approximately several years — but a change in tone.
“We meet G and B in this more exploratory space, that allows, I think, more people to latch on to their story because it is a little purposely vague,” said Marut. “We go from this very liminal playing space where we’re only relying on light changes and blackouts to delineate the passage of time and different emotional states … We move from act one to act two: a fully built kitchen with props, trash, costume layers, food and lights … I think it serves to reflect the world that the characters managed to build for themselves in the time that passes between act one and act two.”
In Act Two, the issues that the characters face are much more heightened and tangible.
The emotional aspects of the show are heightened by the use of music, which was composed specifically for this production by Natalie Brown ’25 — who also composed the music for the musical “For Colored Girls.”
A melancholy melody plays at several key moments throughout the show, intentionally used to trigger a feeling from the audience. When the audience hears the melody, they remember the last time the music played and the emotional context that came with it.
However, like the characters change and develop, so does the music. While the basic melody stays the same, it differs slightly each time it plays.
“This is the new emotional state of the characters,” Brown explained as the purpose of the changes in the music. “The top of Act Two, for example, is a reiteration of the top of Act One but has some darker undertones. It’s fundamentally different in the way that’s like ‘we’re never getting back to where we were at the top of act one.’”
This is not a happy-go-lucky story, and intentionally so, Brown said. It is meant to emphasize the shortcomings of the American immigration system as experienced by these characters, according to Brown.
Audience members are invited to search for themselves in ambiguous spaces and to resonate with characters they might not think themselves capable of relating to, DeRuiter added.
“These people visibly loved and cared for each other,” DeRuiter said. “What were the things that happened that prevented them from caring for each other in the way that they promised to? What went wrong? I hope that [audience members] feel for those people and understand everybody’s perspective. Everybody makes a really difficult and ugly decision by the end of this show, and I hope people are thinking about that.”
The show will be playing Thursday, Feb. 8 through Saturday, Feb. 10 in the Theater and Performance Studies Black Box.