Sometimes a story demands to be told.
When the characters of “Sanctuary City” walked into another play that Martyna Majok was writing, she put everything else aside and wrote until their story was told.
The show is now getting its LA premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse from Wednesday, September 14, to Sunday, October 9. Directed by Zi Alikhan, the story centers two Dreamers as they try to find a safe way to live in the United States where they are never truly welcomed. Lifelong friends, the love they have for one another forces audiences to ask questions about what we owe each other and how does love express itself.
Majok, who recently won a Pulitzer Prize for “Cost of Living,” which is getting its Broadway premiere this fall, said the Dreamer character showed up while she was writing “Queens,” and demanded her attention, reminding her of friends she knew growing up.
“At 3 a.m., my mind was so loud that I got up and started writing what I thought were notes but what I realized a few pages in were actually scenes,” Majok said.
“I canceled everything I had planned until I finished a draft because I was so afraid of losing this story. It took me three days. It’s the fastest I’ve ever written a draft of a play. I wrote it as an act of love, apology and witness.”
Alikhan had met Danny Feldman, the artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse, in the spring and he said they bonded over a love of Broadway musicals — and of Majok’s work. They spoke about “Sanctuary City,” and they both said that the New York premiere was unbeatable, that there would be no other way to direct that play.
“Then, about three weeks later, Danny called and asked me if I wanted to direct the play at the Playhouse,” Alikhan said. “It’s been a really thrilling ride to figure out how to tell that story.”
He says he and his design team have dug deep into the script, trying to figure out how to tell the story that intimately revolves around the lives of three people — G, B and Henry — and puts it in the big space that is the Playhouse.
Alikhan, like the playwright and the characters in the show, is a child of immigrants, someone who has fought to understand his relationship to the United States.
“It’s been a really incredible, muscular text to dive into and tear apart,” Alikhan described.
Majok explores the ways the country’s policies make it difficult for some to soar and thrive. It’s something she has had personal experience with.
“People talk about the attainment of the American Dream as something that is dependent upon one’s ability to work hard,” Majok said.
“My mother worked as a house cleaner for much of her life, as well as in factories and delivering mail for the post office. Nobody can say to me, as she scrubs a floor on her knees, that she didn’t ‘work hard enough,’ that her inability or unwillingness to work is why she may be struggling financially, or may not be as secure as others. Why is she not wealthy? Perhaps because her contributions are not as valued as those of others. Perhaps because her life, in this country, is not as valued.”
Alikhan said he is excited about the ways this play offers people a window into lives that are not their own. It grounds people into the stories of undocumented Americans. Each of the three actors and Alikhan all identify as people of color. They are also young. Alikhan says he is the oldest at age 35. The show stars Ana Nicolle Chavez as G and Miles Fowler as B.
“I think it’s a really gorgeous opportunity for people to prioritize and center our voices in the larger American conversation,” Alikhan described.
Part of Majok’s reasoning for giving her two central characters initials and not names was so that they weren’t tied to a particular country or ethnicity. In the New York premiere, G was Dominican, B was Haitian and Henry was of Ghanaian descent. She wanted the characters to suit the actors and not vice versa.
“These characters have grown up within working-class multicultural America and they have connections, feelings and knowledge of their countries of origin (or in Henry’s case, the country of his parents), but I limited moments of this in the script to encourage wider, more inclusive casting across subsequent productions, which need not replicate the casting of the original production,” Majok said.
“I hope this translates to more opportunities for actors from various backgrounds — as well as more opportunities for and versions of this story.”
She wants to see theater companies cast the show in ways that reflect the realities of their community as it relates to class and immigration. She says all three characters could be Vietnamese, Pakistani, Ecuadorian, Uzbek, Uighur, Eritrean, Brazilian or any other combination.
The story is told with the intention of challenging the audience to think about alternatives, not to feed them an answer. No one, Alikhan explained, is allowed to check out.
“What Martyna presented is a real, true life with no caveats,” Alikhan said. “Of these three people, the conversations are so unbelievably, almost voyeuristic, because they feel so real. In presenting us with that truth, I think we have to listen harder. We are in constant conversation with these characters. There might only be three people onstage, but hopefully there are several hundred people in the audience with whom we are in conversation with every night. The audience isn’t there just to sit back and absorb the show.”
One of the reasons the play might feel so personal is that it expresses the playwright’s fears. She shared that the fear of not mattering to her country has driven a lot of her life, especially as it relates to health care. To stay alive and healthy, she must find a way to matter enough so she can pay for or qualify for access to care.
“Isn’t that unfortunate?” Majok asked. “To have to earn the ability to stay alive and well? To live thinking that your home does not want you? To know that your home has implemented rules to reinforce that you don’t matter — at least, not as much as others?”
She explained that B’s life and future are less valued than others because of the location of his birth and the circumstances of his immigration.
“No matter how skilled or hardworking, no matter how American he has become, he is not given access,” Majok said. “And that breaks my (expletive) heart and at times fills it with rage. We can talk about the unequal playing field in America as it relates to many things — class, race, identity, health, age, immigration status or even as being just ‘liked but not well liked.’ There are certain levels of access that are denied to certain people. … Pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps is all good — if you’ve got straps or boots.”
Alikhan said the cast has spent rehearsal time discussing borders and what they mean. They are, he explained, an invisible and arbitrary structure that is created by someone in power to take power away from someone else.
“Those of us who were either born here or naturalized here, borders are something that we likely don’t think about every day,” Alikhan said. “But the people in this play are forced to carry borders on their shoulders everywhere they turn. There’s a moment in the play where one of the characters talks about how much fear he’s in every time he jaywalks.”
While he resides in New York, Alikhan said he’s been having the time of his life working in Pasadena. He grew up outside of Sacramento before moving to New York University to pursue a degree in musical theater.
“I feel so supported by the Playhouse, by Danny’s leadership and their team. We’re having a really great time.”
The show marks an anniversary and a return to Pasadena for Alikhan. He began his career as a director at the Playhouse, shadowing a director staging a world premiere play.
“‘Sanctuary City’ is exactly to the day 10 years later from when I was an SDC observer at the Playhouse, and it’s pretty surreal to me to get to come back,” Alikhan said.
“Sanctuary City” by Martyna Majok
WHEN: Various times Wednesday, September 14, to Sunday, October 9
WHERE: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molina Avenue, Pasadena
COST: Tickets start at $35
INFO: 626-356-7529, pasadenaplayhouse.org