Skye Figueroa and Shawn Denegre-Vaught as G and B in “Sanctuary City.” Photo by Doroga Media

Life can turn into a bad dream for people who come to the United States full of hope but cannot obtain the proper paperwork to legally stay here.

The Portland Theater Festival is finishing up its 2023 season with a compelling production of “Sanctuary City,” a drama by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Martyna Majok that takes audience members into the lives of young undocumented immigrants in Newark, New Jersey, in the years immediately following the events of 9/11.

The main characters, known only as G (female, age 17-21) and B (male, age 17-21) arrived in the U.S. as children and now live here in rough, working-class conditions. They want to stay and succeed in the only country they really know. Both are undocumented and, although they live in a sanctuary city, both know that they are not fully protected from being found out and suffering the consequences.

The pair’s friendship is essentially platonic, but with suggestions of something more in the works. They huddle together, talking and sleeping side by side in what is conveyed as a very modest apartment (the set is largely made of fragmented elements – a window frame, fire escape steps, etc.).

Financially overburdened and mistreated by employers because of her immigration status, B’s mother has decided to return to her country of origin (never specified). Will B reluctantly go with her? G hopes not. The status of G, a physical abuse victim, takes a big turn for the better when her mom is naturalized and G, therefore, can apply for and get help with going to college.

Skye Figueroa, a first-time professional performer, brings tremendous energy to the stage as G. Though her character is young and sometimes appealingly silly, her strength becomes clear as the play progresses through riveting early sequences of scenes that require plenty of physical action, as well as emotional expressiveness.


Shawn Denegre-Vaught works well with Figueroa in the role of the quiet charmer B. Under the direction of Bari Robinson, both actors bring off the contrasting moments of playfulness by young people discovering themselves while being shadowed by clouds of doubt about how long it will all last. While G is eventually able to break free, B grows weary of dead-end jobs and no hope for advancement.

Skye Figueroa and Shawn Denegre-Vaught as G and B in “Sanctuary City.” Photo by Doroga Media

Both warm to the idea of a marriage of convenience to get B to a legal status, though they, as always, dance around the romantic implications. Some of the best and funniest scenes in the show have them literally dancing together in awkward but endearing ways.

Things complicate in the play’s second half as G moves away to attend school in Boston and B develops a relationship with a self-important older man named Henry, played by local favorite Thomas Campbell. The play tries to bundle diverse issues into the morass of immigration struggles outlined earlier. Furious arguments ensue when G returns and confronts them.

The characters lose a bit of their luster by the close. But after all, they’ve been through some incredibly tough challenges in a culture and legal system that can easily tear them apart.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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