TheaterWorks Hartford explores immigration issues in the drama ‘Sanctuary City’

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At a time when a lot of theaters are still carefully rebuilding their subscriber bases, it’s interesting to see how “safe” popular mainstream shows aren’t necessarily the best choice, and that audiences are just as likely to come out to see some challenging, different or new. TheaterWorks Hartford’s current season, which has a general concept of “immersive” works that bring viewers closer to the action through creative designs and special effects, is aggressively courting theatergoers who want something different, something contemporary and something that makes them think.

Martyna Majok’s “Sanctuary City,” at TheaterWorks Hartford from March 28 through April 25, has an unambiguous title. It’s set in a sanctuary city, meaning a city that is lenient or openly dismissive in how it enforces federal immigration laws.

Hartford is a sanctuary city. So is New Haven, where this production’s co-director Jacob Padrón is the artistic director of a different theater geared to immersive experiences, the now-itinerant Long Wharf Theatre.

“Sanctuary City” is set in Newark, New Jersey in the early and mid-2000s, not long after the events of 9/11. It concerns two teens — known in the play simply as “G” and “B” — who have known each other all their lives. G is a naturalized U.S. citizen while B is an undocumented immigrant. They make plans to remain together. There’s a third character, an adult named Henry, who’s a first-generation American. G, B and Henry’s stories are told through dozens of disjointed “memories” that can be non-linear, abstract or drawn from different perspectives.

“Sanctuary City” is a few years old, but this is its first major production in Connecticut. Still in her 30s, Majok is a 2012 graduate of the Yale School of Drama, which produced her “Petty Harbour” in 2012 as part of its Carlotta Festival of New Plays. Another script of hers, “The Cost of Living,” won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Rob Ruggiero, TheaterWorks Hartford’s producing artistic director, is the person who conceived of the “immersive” season and selected “Sanctuary City” to be part of it, yet he’s not directing the production. For one thing, he’s busy right now at another theater, helming the Goodspeed Opera House musical “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” (currently in rehearsals and running April 5 through June 2). For another, he wanted to place the project in the hands of those with a special perspective on the project.

Ruggiero brought together Padrón, who’s not known as a director in Connecticut but has gained attention for new theater visions at the Long Wharf, and local filmmaker Pedro Bermúdez, whom Ruggiero worked with the virtual production “The Sound Inside” which TheaterWorks streamed during the COVID shutdown.

Padrón and Bermúdez are acting as co-directors, bringing their own takes on immigrant issues to Majok’s script. Padrón founded the Sol Project, which champions Latinx playwrights. Bermúdez, who runs the local film and video production company Revisionist, grew up in Hartford’s Puerto Rican community.

“I am so honored to direct ‘Sanctuary City’ alongside Jacob and to help bring this story to life here in my hometown,” Bermúdez said in a written statement. “Co-directing this piece has been a beautiful, full-circle experience to celebrate and honor the many diverse communities that make our city so special.

“It’s become more important than ever to find ways to thoughtfully and authentically tell stories about immigrants. I hope this performance immerses audiences deep into these issues and inspires conversation about American identity, friendship and possibility,” Bermúdez added.

“This play was on my radar for a while,” Ruggiero said. “Its licensers kept saying ‘You’ve to do it,’ but I wasn’t sure. It felt dark. There’s no humor. Then the rest of our staff, who read all the scripts we’re looking at, they really wanted to do it. So I reread it and it is just heartbreakingly beautiful. I realized we can’t not do this. I had been talking with Jacob about another project and getting to know him, and Pedro and I had worked together.

“They’re co-directors,” Ruggiero said. “They’re true partners. Jacob tends to guide the rehearsal room, while Pedro is looking at other aspects of the production, such as the projections. I stayed on the periphery and offered the support they needed.”

TheaterWorks seems to be taking the empty space of the opening moments as a challenge. “She (Majok) is very clear that at the beginning, it should be a bare stage,” Ruggiero said of Majok’s stage directions, which at other points in the play are not nearly as explicit.

Seats have been removed from the auditorium to bring the stage closer to the audience. When there’s no longer a need for a bare stage, a lot of other elements come into play. “There’s a cinematic language that exists in the text that this team seeks to elevate,” Ruggiero said. “They really are digging in. They spent a lot of time together. They really wanted to lean into the memory language.”

Although Padrón is the artistic director of the Long Wharf, “Sanctuary City” is not technically a co-production between that theater company and TheaterWorks. It is a partnership, though, Ruggiero clarified. The show is an “add-on opportunity” for Long Wharf members, he said, and “later in the season, they will offer our subscribers a similar deal. We have a nice relationship with the Long Wharf right now. They will have a group here on opening night.”

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Bermúdez made a lengthy promotional video for the play, filmed at the Hartford train station. To further the local connections between the Newark-set, Hartford-relevant drama, TheaterWorks is holding talkbacks, an art exhibit and other events that reflect themes in “Sanctuary City.”

On April 11 at 7 p.m., the theater will host a panel discussion on “Policy, the Border Crisis and Pathways Forward” with Betsy Lawrence, Deputy Assistant to the President for Immigration; Homa Naficy, executive director of the adult education and immigration services program The American Place at Hartford Public Library; Kica Matos, president of the National Immigration Law Center; and Anghy Idrovo, an Ecuadoran “dreamer” immigrant and former executive director of CT Students for a Dream. Another panel, still being confirmed, is planned for April 18 with representatives from the Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Immigrants and Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services.

“Sanctuary City” will be performed for over 900 Hartford Public Schools students during the final week of the play’s run. There are also special performances for UConn Hartford and Capital Community College.

To increase opportunities for the Hartford community to see “Sanctuary City,” TheaterWorks has added two matinee performances on April 23 and April 25 at 11 a.m. to its usual month-long run. The theater is also offering a “Pay What You Can” deal for Hartford residents for all performances.

TheaterWorks’ art gallery space in the lobby of its building at 233 Pearl St. is presenting work by local photographer Joël Cintron. The exhibit is titled “Siempre Pa’ Lante,” the Puerto Rican phrase for “keep moving forward.”

“It’s part of our mission to create an important conversation,” Ruggiero said.

“Sanctuary City” runs March 28 through April 25 at TheaterWorks Hartford. 233 Pearl St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2:30 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m., with added matinees April 23 and 25. $25-$70; “Pay What You Can” for Hartford residents.