Sanctuary

How the Chicago premiere of ‘Sanctuary City’ is holding space for the next generation of queer theatermakers

· Updated on October 4, 2023

(left to right) Brandon Rivera, Jocelyn Zamudio and Grant Kennedy Lewis. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

At the center of Martyna Majok’s Sanctuary City is America — specifically, who can live here and who cannot, and the choices the latter are forced to make. The play makes its Chicago premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre Company this fall. INTO sat down with the cast to discuss intersectional identity, safe spaces, and performing the show in a real-life sanctuary city

In the past several years, a glimmer of similar narratives has emerged, mainly in the world of young adult fiction. The Sun is Also a Star, Nicola Yoon’s 2016 bestselling novel, adapted into a 2019 film, follows two passionate, driven New York teenagers, one of whom faces deportation with her family. Last Night at the Telegraph Club, Malinda Lo’s 2021 Stonewall Book Award winner, deftly tackles intersectional identity in another charged political era (the Red Scare of the 1950s). Sanctuary City begins in the months after September 11, 2001, when anti-immigration policies tighten, changing lives along the way.

Majok, whose 2016 play Cost of Living won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, here creates an intimate, intermissionless three-person play with a unique structure: The first half delivers a fast-talking flurry of vignettes, the second a more traditional scene that spans one long and very late night. The resolution — if one can even call it that — is difficult. From the audition process, all three actors were captivated.

“It’s like a puzzle,” actor Grant Kennedy Lewis told INTO. “When I first read [the script], I was like, ‘Oh, this connects to this.’ And then getting to the second part, where there’s the full scene, I was like, ‘okay, damn, we’re just sitting back and watching this whole thing unfold.'”

The Next Generation of Chicago Theatermakers

(l to r)Jocelyn Zamudio, Grant Kennedy Lewis, and Brandon Rivera in Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of 'Sanctuary City'
(l to r)Jocelyn Zamudio, Grant Kennedy Lewis, and Brandon Rivera in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of ‘Sanctuary City.’ Photo by Michael Brosilow

Though I’ve been a Steppenwolf audience member for years, it was my first time behind the scenes in their administrative offices. I sat with the three actors in a small, cozy library bursting with scripts and exuding warmth. “Look at how the sun comes in,” enthused Jocelyn Zamudio, who plays G, an outspoken young woman devoted to her intelligent, driven best friend B (Lewis). 

The cast was deep into rehearsal and performed a preview performance (whose pace can only be described as “breathless”) the night before. Zamudio, Lewis (who plays B), and Brandon Rivera (as Henry, whose every line matches G’s frankness and B’s intensity) gathered on a Friday morning — a trio embodying the next generation of theatermakers. 

After the interview, Zamudio and Lewis headed to rehearsal. Rivera had a work call. But at this moment, they were bright-eyed and open in their casual attire — not unlike what their characters sport in the play, only without the UGG boots — ready to spill forth about Sanctuary City.

When Identities Collide

(l-r) Brandon Rivera
and Grant Kennedy Lewis in Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of 'Sanctuary City.'
(l-r) Brandon Rivera and Grant Kennedy Lewis in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of ‘Sanctuary City.’ Photo by Michael Brosilow

The plot: after 9/11, the bond of two New Jersey teenagers tightens as their adopted country’s hostility increases. As time passes and their relationship deepens, so do its complications as long-held secrets come to light. Sanctuary City offers no easy answers in its short but powerful 95 minutes.

Identity plays a major part in Majok’s play, directed at Steppenwolf by Steph Paul. Lewis and co-stars Brandon Rivera and Jocelyn Zamudio are all queer actors of color, and the challenges of intersectional identities immediately resonated with the cast.

Growing up in Long Beach, California, Lewis knew he was gay from a young age, but didn’t feel comfortable coming out to his family, friends, and teammates. His Sanctuary City character also must take precautions to stay under the radar. 

“[G]rowing up in a place where you feel like you can’t be yourself, and you have to hide things, for whatever reason, if that’s, you know, being queer, if it’s being undocumented — I think a lot of that goes hand in hand,” Lewis said.

“Some of my youngest memories were me not really knowing who I was supposed to like, and as a femme person, I was automatically assigned to be attracted to cishet men,” Zamudio said. Within her religion, answers weren’t readily available, and questioning wasn’t encouraged. “I grew up Catholic, so the conversation around queerness was just automatically a f*cking no.”

How many times was I told, men don’t talk like that, they don’t sit like that? And you’re hyperaware of how your body is in space, in relationship to other people. And that is like all marginalized communities because you are constantly told that you are not the norm, you are not right.

Brandon Rivera

Rivera agreed that the queer and undocumented experiences have parallels, such as “having to clock the way you walk, so you are not stopped.” As a younger queer person, he recalled, “How many times was I told, men don’t talk like that, they don’t sit like that? And you’re hyperaware of how your body is in space, in relationship to other people. And that is like all marginalized communities because you are constantly told that you are not the norm, you are not right.” 

For the actors and their characters, safe space is vital. As a teenager, Zamudio felt secure in her hometown of Waukegan, Illinois: “[It’s] a predominantly Black and Brown community, very accepting of queer folks, so I never had to explain anything or hide any part of myself.” 

Lewis, who came out his first year of college, now plays on a gay soccer team, and both he and Rivera regularly attend queer parties and events. 

Their Sanctuary City characters seek solace within the walls of a Newark apartment. Rivera said during the rehearsal process, director Paul compared the apartment to a snow globe: a haven on the inside, but, as with all safe spaces, “the outside world still exists and penetrates that.”

A ‘Full Circle’ Moment

In rehearsal for Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of 'Sanctuary City.'
In rehearsal for Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of ‘Sanctuary City.’ Photos by Joel Moorman

Sanctuary City provided other opportunities for its cast to feel seen. “This is one of the few plays I’ve read where I really resonated with a character…like this is just how I talk,” Lewis reflected. “How he uses ‘f*ck’ and just the way he starts sentences, then restarts in the middle of a sentence. I felt I fit in this part, and it was very cool to see.”

Zamudio was drawn to her character’s inner battles, especially in the context of the early 2000s. “[A]round that time, mental health was not at the forefront of our conversations,” she said. “I think about all the trauma she had to endure [from] her late teens up to her young adult life and how that starts manifesting itself.” 

For Rivera, the characters’ many complexities struck a chord, and recalled a quote the director shared from the playwright: “These characters fight this hard because they love this hard.”

“No one character in this play is right or wrong,” Rivera said. “But they’re all fighting for something. And so that passion, that deep love, and the ugliness of what it means to fight for the person you love just really rang true.”

Though Rivera is making his Steppenwolf debut along with Lewis, Zamudio understudied in Steppenwolf’s I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter (adapted from the book by Erika L. Sánchez). His high school was also a partner in the Steppenwolf for Young Adults program, which presents two productions per season geared toward Gen Z audiences, including school performances and study guides. When Rivera’s class saw a stage adaptation of Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, featuring an all-Latinx cast, the then-sophomore’s goals changed.

“It was the first time I saw [people who] looked like me on stage,” he remembered. “And I was like, I think I can do this professionally.”

Founded in 1975, Steppenwolf hasn’t always been a beacon of diversity. Founding ensemble members include Terry Kinney, Jeff Perry, and Gary Sinise (all white men), as well as Laurie Metcalf, John Malkovich, and the late John Mahoney. 

Steppenwolf Theatre Company's 1988 production of 'The Grapes of Wrath.'
Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s 1988 production of ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ Photo by Steve Kagan/Getty Images

Though diversity, equity, and inclusion is a work in progress for Steppenwolf and countless other regional theaters and Broadway productions, the ensemble has expanded significantly to include artists of color, including actor and Steppenwolf co-artistic director Glenn Davis and playwrights Rajiv Joseph (2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist for Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo) and Tarell Alvin McCraney (Oscar-winning co-screenwriter of Moonlight and recently-named artistic director of Los Angeles’s Geffen Playhouse). 

Steppenwolf’s programming has expanded beyond the works of Sam Shepard, Tennessee Williams, and John Steinbeck adaptations. In 1992, the company produced The Song of Jacob Zulu, a story about apartheid featuring the South African a cappella singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Last season included James IjamesThe Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington, featuring Hacks actor Carl Clemons Hopkins, as well the world premiere of Joseph’s King James, co-starring  Abbott Elementary‘s Chris Perfetti.

The cast of 'The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington .'
The cast of ‘The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington.’ Photo by Michael Brosilow

Rivera is experiencing what he called a “full circle moment”— Sanctuary City is the first Steppenwolf production to have a full run as part of both the mainstage series and the Steppenwolf for Young Adults program, reaching season subscribers, new audiences, and high school students from throughout Chicago. To the actors, the prospect is thrilling.

“This is the first year they’re sharing [Steppenwolf for Young Adults] study guides with the public as well,” said Rivera, whose high school drama teacher is bringing a student group. “It’s truly intergenerational, that everyone is getting the same information. And they’re walking in with different life experiences into the world of this play, which is really cool and exciting.”

Seeing these experiences represented at such a big theater in Chicago, I think that’s very important, and will hopefully change the way some of these kids see themselves and the world.

Grant Kennedy Lewis

With Gen Z characters facing life-altering decisions in a heated political climate, Sanctuary City has the opportunity to impact all audiences while also reflecting moments of humor and joy amid the chaos. Most importantly, programs like Steppenwolf for Young Adults increase access and supplement the already powerful source material with an educational component valuable to audiences of all ages.

“Seeing these experiences represented at such a big theater in Chicago, I think that’s very important,” Lewis said, “and will hopefully change the way some of these kids see themselves and the world.”

Set more than two decades ago, Sanctuary City shines a light on our country’s continued inability to resolve immigration policies. Anti-immigration political rhetoric surges, with Chicago seeing an influx of migrants with winter not far away. The cast hopes that audiences, no matter their age, will learn from their characters’ experiences and carry that understanding and empathy beyond the theater.

“My hope is that people who haven’t had to walk this path get exposed to these people that you might not know or come across every day,” Zamudio said. “And next time you see them, you actually see them as full complex human beings, and not just this percentage or this small subgroup. Their stories are just as deserving as any other kind that have been onstage time and time again.” ♦

Sanctuary City plays at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre through November 18.

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