Arena Stage presents immigration play ‘Sanctuary City’ about teen DREAMers


Arena Stage theater in D.C. is exploring the topic of immigration in the new play “Sanctuary City” now through Nov. 27.

WTOP’s Jason Fraley previews ‘Sanctuary City’ at Arena Stage (Part 1)

Immigration is one of the many political issues in the midterm elections next week, and Arena Stage, in D.C., is exploring the topic in the new play “Sanctuary City” now through Nov. 27.

“It’s a wonderful new play,” artistic director Molly Smith told WTOP. “It is a really deep story about immigration and what two young DREAMers go through in coming to this country and trying to be American citizens. It’s a really important show for right now.”

Presented in conjunction with Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the play is set in Newark, New Jersey, in the early 2000s. It follows two teenage friends (Maria Victoria Martinez and Hernan Angulo), one recently naturalized and the other undocumented, who decide to get married in order to keep the latter in the only country that they’ve both ever known.

“It’s a powerful story,” Smith said. “Most of the time we read stories about immigration in the newspaper, hear about it on the radio, see images on television, but this … you are living through these young people, and you are living through what they are going through in all of its guises — from their tender relationship to their relationship with their parents.”

The story is personal to Polish playwright Martyna Majok, who emigrated to the U.S. with her mother. She grew up in New Jersey before attending the University of Chicago, Yale School of Drama and the Juilliard School. Her breakthrough play was “Ironbound” (2014), followed by her Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Cost of Living” (2016) and “Queens” (2018).

“She often has written about this subject, but I do think ‘Sanctuary City’ is one of her best plays,” Smith said. “She wrote about it in ‘Ironbound’ as well. She is a really sophisticated playwright. … She is someone who has lived it, so you have the lived experience.”

If you watched the recent Ken Burns documentary “The U.S. and the Holocaust” on PBS, you’ll know that there has long been a troubling anti-immigrant sentiment among many Americans that contradicts the nation’s highest ideals.

“Remember that before World War II, America was quite isolationist in its thinking,” Smith said. “America has always had this in its bloodlines: either a desire to reach out or a desire to close off. The only people who are residents of America are the Native Americans, and there are only 3 million Native Americans left — upwards of 30 million were murdered.”

She says too many Americans let fear of “the other” cloud their stance on immigration, forgetting all too quickly that many of our older relatives were also immigrants.

“Just because somebody comes in doesn’t mean that you don’t get what you want,” Smith said. “That’s often the fear: ‘What am I going to lose?’ No — it’s what are you going to gain? What are you going to gain from a different perspective, a different way of thinking, a different way of being? A lot of immigrants work jobs where we need that job force.”

Not only do immigrants fill important jobs, many embody the American Dream that we profess to care about so much in this country.

“This whole sense of promise and purpose comes in with immigrants,” Smith said. “They believe in the American Dream so fiercely and fervently that when they are able to obtain a piece of that, it’s good for all of us. It’s good for every single American, and it’s really good to keep remembering that we are a nation of ‘the other’ and a nation of immigrants.”

WTOP’s Jason Fraley previews ‘Sanctuary City’ at Arena Stage (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.


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