Sanctuary Cities and Sanctuary Theater

Even in Shakespeare’s era, theaters literally shielded people from the state. Today’s theaters might talk sanctuary, but rarely practice it.

Haydar [to audience]: I’m sick of telling my story; talk talk talk talk. I already told my story. It doesn’t work. I don’t want to. Don’t make me do this. Sorry, I don’t want to play.  … Who are you, the Government, Immigration, a spy of the Minister, who?


Catherine Simmonds and asylum seekers and refugees from The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (Melbourne), Journey of Asylum—Waiting1

There is a long-cherished conceit surrounding the theater of sanctuary—plays about asylum and refuge—that the telling of a migrant’s story will yield great dividends. It is partly about changing the minds of the hostile or undecided (the Habermasian fantasy that productive exchanges are possible if only communication is unimpeded). Partly, the rationale is personal: that the opportunity to tell their story on stage will be salutary for the subjects, the migrants themselves.

But, in 2022—after Trump and pandemics and exponential increases in data collection—something feels different about doing such theater. The old earnest solicitations for stories do not sit well. Many well-meaning sanctuary plays insist on cuddling up to narrative. But these plays overlook the awkward fact that they can eerily reproduce the systems of interrogation that exclude migrants in the first place.

Consider Haydar’s plea in the epigraph above. The “undocumented” are ostensibly those without the required papers for legal life. And yet, they are all too often overdocumented, obsessively documented. The requirement to tell a story—to adjudicatory boards, asylum arbiters, federal judges, police, advocates—can be a never-ending sequence of autobiographical expectation, running to thousands of pages riddled with invasive detail.

Asking such a person to account for themselves again on stage edges toward complicity with forces working against the “unapologetic” migrant. Asking a migrant to tell their story on stage implicitly seeks apology—a narrative justification—as rent for occupying stage-space.2

Whether in reality or in representation, the confessional genre of sanctuary theater places a labor demand—for a coherent, affectively productive story—on an already distressed migrant. This gig becomes only the latest in an endless string of temporary, contingent jobs, each threatening to extract more than it pays. The demands of disclosure, and its attendant repetitions, can traumatically reenact the past’s disorienting circumstances. The revisiting of one’s story now, when systemic issues continue unresolved, is nightmarish.

Martyna Majok, in her play Sanctuary City, which debuted at New York Theatre Workshop last fall and opened at Berkeley Rep on July 8, intuits this narrative exhaustion of distressed migrants. In Sanctuary City, there is a healthy distrust of the confessional; at times, a sendup of it. By ingeniously making the telling of stories a major contributor to the brutal circumstances of its protagonists, the play not only exposes the woes of the undocumented, but also chronicles the many iterations of disappointment associated with shallow refuge promises. It casts a self-reflexive glare at its own title and at the theater as an institution, prompting reflection: What are we doing with all these stories? Is this how we want to use the space of the stage? Is this how we want to use this building, in its environment? Is this how we want to deploy the potential and resources of this temporarily gathered community?

Majok’s weary indictment is a welcome intervention in sanctuary theater. Her work compels us to reexamine assumptions about the relationship between asylum and drama, and to think more ambitiously.

And yet, to capture these complex dynamics is not necessarily to transcend them. It is hard to overstate the oddness of presenting one’s papers—vaccination card and ID—at the door of a play called Sanctuary City. The requirement is understandable but the ramifications no less real. Demand for ID can become an anxiety-provoking invisible fortification around the so-called sanctuary. A theater may host performances on sanctuary; but it enacts, spatially, the kind of sanctuary it is.3

A positive example of situated refuge is 2020’s @openyourlobby movement and its intersectional, expanded approach. Theaters, including New York Theatre Workshop, opened “safe spaces” for protesters during demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd, providing bathrooms, water, and rest areas.4

Such extratheatrical considerations may seem tangential to drama’s aims, but in spirit they are, remarkably, one of the truest connections to theater’s heritage. The theaters of Shakespeare’s day developed in areas with archaic legal sanctuary privileges (the ability to protect dwellers from arrest from municipal authorities). Centuries ago, playgoers watching Richard III violate sanctuary or characters find asylum in The Comedy of Errors would have understood this organic connection: that the theater they were standing in was inscribed in sanctuary’s complicated history.5

Majok’s drama features two teenage undocumented migrants, brought to the US as children, navigating life in Newark after 9/11 and before DACA. The play resists the pressures of story time. “B” and “G” are all we get as character names on the program. These two have said enough—who are we to demand more information? The Government, Immigration, who? Like Haydar, the refugee quoted above, Majok’s pugnacious production does not “want to play.”

Through a breathless assemblage of flash vignettes, B and G establish their rhythm. They are peers at school. G stays with B when she feels unsafe. They share a bed, albeit ambiguously. They share meals, hopes, disappointments. Underneath these rhythms is something urgent, desperate.

Sanctuary City catalogues the unyielding precarity of the undocumented.6 G cannot report her mother’s abusive boyfriend for fear of getting turned in to immigration. G herself often skips school because of bruises and an overly solicitous nurse’s office. B covers for her, as they devise acceptable illness narratives. B’s mother endures dreadful working conditions under threat her boss will expose her status. G and B thank each other compulsively; they fill for each other inexplicable roles, through verbal tics and synchronized routines. They do not have a citizen’s luxury of silence.

A college education is a perceived way forward. But the absence of federal-loan support for the undocumented forecloses this path. That is, until G’s mother becomes naturalized, simultaneously conferring US citizenship on G. A rift opens, altering the balance of vulnerabilities. The virtues or sins of the parents become their children’s fates. While G obtains a college scholarship in Boston, B’s mother leaves the country altogether. G’s citizenship relieves a palpable burden; her presence changes, which B immediately resents. Newly emboldened, G offers marriage to help B obtain citizenship. But doing so will require yet another acceptable story. In a new hyperrhythm, B and G practice immigration interview questions relentlessly, an overwhelming itch that eventually draws blood. Some answers come easy, others are elusive. All nominally aim to satisfy a hypothetical immigration official, a shadowy omniscience.

Without spoiling the remainder, suffice it to say relations between B and G do not get less complex. Majok amplifies, with raw ugliness, how the mutually oppressed can hurt one another in unique ways. Majok deftly shows how external pressures of the state—with its draconian immigration regime and many dimensions of inequality—erect boundaries between the subjugated. If her precise means of doing so rings somewhat improbable, no matter; the play, registered more abstractly, is a poignant meditation on the challenges of intersectional solidarity.

The confessional genre of sanctuary theater places a labor demand—for a coherent, affectively productive story—on an already distressed migrant.

Where, if anywhere, is “sanctuary” in Majok’s play? Celebrated playwright Katori Hall recently stated, “I think of theatre as a church. It’s a sanctuary.”7 Theaters themselves accommodate figurative formulations as refuge: as a transporting art form,8 as an intimate setting for relating, as a zone for forbidden ideas.9 But, since Trump’s crackdowns, the sanctuary city motif has increasingly gained steam, including notably in Shakespeare in the Parks’s As You Like It (2017), which was touted as an eminently inclusive space.10 These “city” approaches evoke something distinct: a jurisdictionally grounded sense of sanctuary, an unstable political and legal history of protection.

These projects are laudable, but we should be wary of sanctuary becoming a trope that might be tried on and tossed off like any other modish aesthetic. What can be overlooked in fashionable invocations of stages as sanctuary spaces is their actual history as exactly that. A significant slice of the dramatic tradition burst forth from extrajurisdictional liberties dotting the London map, areas with ancient church rights allowing them to harbor whom they wished and defy the surrounding city’s policies (including bans on theater and on foreign-born artisans working without guild approval).

This concrete linkage between sanctuary and theater did not, clearly, last forever. Still, at a critical moment, English drama was meaningfully stamped with associations of faded freedoms, spectral glimpses of heterogenous enclaves, differently distributed powers. As Mary Bly explains, early modern theatergoers attending Whitefriars Theatre, in London, would have internalized the location as dissolved monastic land transformed into a secular site with sanctuary privileges. Voiced in theaters like Whitefriars, references to extrajurisdictional spaces were self-conscious nods to the immediate place and its people.11 The sited stage provided trenchant opportunities to celebrate a measure of autonomy. Given theater’s extensive historical intertwining with sanctuary-space, it risks selling itself and its communities short when a superficial refuge theme displaces the deeper and more radical potential of drama’s role(s) in refuge.

When American churches began offering sanctuary to antiwar navy men in the late 1960s, the link between asylum and theater was explicit. An arrest in a sacred space was then described as a means to “dramatize the religious and moral basis of opposition to the war.”12 Modern sanctuary cities essentially trace to Berkeley, California, around the same time, when its council decided to support area churches providing sanctuary and to adopt a noncooperative approach to federal enforcement. Theatrical overtones are also evident here; a 1971 Berkeley press release states that “the purpose of this decision is to dramatize to the federal government the depth of the anti-war feeling.”13 If theaters grew out of extrajurisdictional sanctuaries, contemporary sanctuaries derive from an acute awareness of dramatic space.


Sanctuary Syllabus

By NYU Sanctuary

If we acknowledge sanctuary as an important dimension of theater’s history and not merely as a trending trope, where does it lead? “Sanctuary city” eludes easy discussion in the legal world. It is not a formally recognized term and does not fit neatly into existing legal and political categories. Refuge nomenclature has been historically fluid, changing with strategies.14 But as Trump’s anti-immigration assaults increased, sanctuary cities presented a kind of federalism with a fresh face—one that conservatives did not recognize as their own, and that the left, given its clashes with federalism’s previous incarnations, only cautiously embraced. What can progressive federalism teach the theater?

Drama that genuinely engages with contemporary sanctuary (or with jurisdictional resistance)15 makes trouble. It reminds audiences—tiny, temporary communities—that sites of resistance, alternative policy, and local self-definition can come in surprising sizes or from unexpected places. In fact, a crucial takeaway of progressive federalism is that, given the right context, no municipal unit (city, town, zoning commission, school board) is too small to make meaningful changes in the lived experience of others. Whether seen as federalism, nullification,16 frontier-zone assemblages,17 sites of the ungovernable18 or sites of government’s recouperation,19 these are spaces for local self-determination. The fate of schools, zoning, healthcare is often determined by small bureaucratic enclaves, in rooms holding fewer than the number of spectators at a play.

Powerful sanctuary theater understands this dynamic, acknowledges its own situatedness, and facilitates encounters between playgoing and advocacy communities. Milta Ortiz’s Sanctuary depicts the early-1980s Tucson sanctuary movement, which aided Central American refugees spurned by the US government. Ortiz’s production, which debuted at Borderlands Theater in Tucson itself, in 2018,20 calls for audience members to participate in the play’s vigils and protests. “This is an opportunity to involve community members,” reads the stage direction for the fifth scene of the first act. “Consider putting out a call for people to show up and be in the play in the Vigil scenes. Possibly up to ten people or however many fit on stage. It’s meant to be different every night.”21

Being called on stage to stand with history’s actors demystifies the aura of heroic advocacy. It emphasizes to the playgoer the abruptness and intimacy of sanctuary’s history, its modest, penetrable character and approachable scale. Gus Schultz, a crucial figure linking Berkeley’s wartime sanctuary and 1980s Central American refugee asylum efforts, emphasized that contemporary American refuge advocacy had no “national office” or “national coordinator.”22

Theaters—often small, independent, decentralized—may tackle sanctuary thematically. But as uniquely capable units of organization with communal footprints, their resonance with refuge-work is already manifest. They are equipped not only to represent but to practice sanctuary in its many dimensions.

Paolo Gerbaudo traces the political turn inward, a “Great Recoil,” wherein populism and pandemics have put states in shrunken, crouching defense postures.23 This can insidiously bring new enclosures and stark access disparities. Majok’s take is sobering and timely. Her play offers no viable sanctuary. This critical stance echoes much refuge scholarship: sanctuary is no panacea and can be chimerical.24

But a more ambitious, intersectional, and positively framed (versus protection-centric) sanctuary can grow from these critiques. “An abolitionist approach to sanctuary,” according to A. Naomi Paik, is “one that works on multiple, simultaneous fronts of struggle against capitalist exploitation, borders, policing, caging, and patriarchal power.”25 Sometimes the radical act is “protecting,” contends Rodrigo Nunes, as “the best way to secure and expand the capacity to act.”26 Paik similarly envisions protection as a means to promote expansion: “Abolitionist sanctuary combines the community defense that is needed right now with the deep envisioning and building of a new society where we welcome all our neighbors.”27

Theater encloses already present—if obscured—vestiges of sanctuary. Advertised or not, the theater is conceptually entangled with safe harbor. It need not demand affectively satisfying stories from the distressed. It is already indelibly part of the story, which is very much ongoing.


This article was commissioned by Ivan Ascher. icon

  1. Reproduced in Staging Asylum, edited by Emma Cox (Currency Press, 2013), p. 145.
  2. On the “undocumented, unafraid, and unapologetic” movement, see Alyshia Gálvez, “Unafraid and Unapologetic, Still,” NACLA Report on the Americas, vol. 49, no. 2 (2017).
  3. A special sensitivity to data collection is an important consideration for a theater considering its own “performance” of sanctuary practices within its situated environment. For example, Mijente’s vision of an “expand(ed) sanctuary” emphasizes antisurveillance initiatives. Mijente, “Expanding Sanctuary,” Mijente. See also, Mijente, “Anduril’s New Border Surveillance Contract with the US Marine Corps and CBP,” Mijente, July 24, 2019.
  4. Caitlin Moynihan, “New York City Theaters Open Doors as Safe Spaces for Protesters,”, June 3, 2020.
  5. See, e.g., Benjamin Woodring, “Liberty to Misread: Sanctuary and Possibility in The Comedy of Errors,” Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities, vol. 28, no. 2 (2016).
  6. On precarity and migration, see Precarity and Belonging: Labor, Migration, and Noncitizenship, edited by Catherine Ramírez, Sylvanna Falcón, et al. (Rutgers University Press, 2021); Building Citizenship from Below: Precarity, Migration, and Agency, edited by Marcel Paret and Shannon Gleeson (Routledge, 2017).
  7. Alexis Soloski, “Pulitzer winner Katori Hall: ‘I think of theatre as a church. It’s a sanctuary’,” Guardian, July 5, 2021.
  8. For literature as refuge, see, e.g., Bess Welden’s Refuge/Malja (Portland Stage, 2018).
  9. See, e.g., Michel Butor, “Fashion and the Modern,” Art in Translation, vol. 7, no. 2 (2015), in which the stage is described as “a sanctuary where carnival-type tolerance prevails on a permanent basis.”
  10. Alexis Soloski, “As You Like It Creates a Sanctuary City in Central Park,” New York Times, September 4, 2017.
  11. Mary Bly, “Playing the Tourist in Early Modern London: Selling the Liberties Onstage,” PMLA, vol. 122, no. 1 (2007).
  12. Edward Fiske, “Church, Sanctuary, and War Resisters,” New York Times, June 2, 1968, p. E5 (emphasis added).
  13. “City Council Supports USS Coral Sea Resistors,” Gustav Shultz Sanctuary Collection, Graduate Theological Union, University of California, Berkeley (c. 1971) (emphasis added). As cited in Jennifer Ridgley, “Refuge, Refusal, and Acts of Holy Contagion: The City as a Sanctuary for Soldiers Resisting the Vietnam War,” ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, vol. 10, no. 2 (2011), p. 205.
  14. Rachel Ida Buff, “Sanctuary Everywhere: Some Key Words, 1945–Present,” Radical History Review, issue 135 (2019).
  15. A compelling example is Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Sovereignty (Northwestern University Press, 2020).
  16. Lorainne Simonis, “Sanctuary Cities: A Study in Modern Nullification?” British Journal of American Legal Studies, vol. 8, no. 1 (2019).
  17. Saskia Sassen, “When the center no longer holds: Cities as frontier zones,” Cities, vol. 34 (2013).
  18. See, e.g., Talja Blokland, Community as Urban Practice (Polity, 2017). On p. 168, cities are described as “turbulent, unstable, aggressive, moving. … What marks the urban is not being governed—and the various ways of not being governed.”
  19. “Some have raised the question of the right of our City Council—or any local unit of government—to become involved in what is essentially a federal jurisdictional matter … it would seem equally fair to ask how any unit of government can fail to get involved … when traditional procedures are not functioning adequately and injustices go un-remedied. … Our City Council has acted within this frame of reference.” Raymond Jennings, “A Pastoral: Re Sanctuary Offered to Sailors of the USS Coral Sea,” Gustav Shultz Sanctuary Collection, Graduate Theological Union, University of California, Berkeley (November 13, 1971). As cited in Ridgley, “Refuge, Refusal, and Acts of Holy Contagion,” at pp. 204–5.
  20. Another example is Shannon Pritchard and Ian Custard’s Sanctuary City (2021), a “neo-noir podcast” providing a detailed supplement on Chicago’s sanctuary history.
  21. Milta Ortiz, Sanctuary (New Play Exchange, 2018).
  22. Gus Schultz, “Response,” from Sanctuary: A Resource Guide for Understanding and Participating in the Central American Refugees’ Struggle, edited by Gary Maceoin (HarperCollins, 1985), p. 79.
  23. Paolo Gerbaudo, The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic (Verso, 2021).
  24. Nicole Waligora-Davis conceives sanctuaries as “throughways, interregnums, thresholds,” spaces of social death and rights deferral. Sanctuary: African Americans and Empire (Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 56.
  25. A. Naomi Paik, Bans, Walls, Raids, Sanctuary: Understanding US Immigration for the Twenty-First Century (University of California Press, 2020), p. 124.
  26. Rodrigo Nunes, Neither Vertical nor Horizontal (Verso, 2021), pp. 272, 276.
  27. Paik, Bans, Walls, Raids, Sanctuary, p. 134.
Featured Image: Fire escapes, Lee Ivans / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)