Interview with Director Zi Alikhan of ‘Sanctuary City’ – A Story About Struggle at the Pasadena Playhouse

Zi Alikhan is the director of Pasadena Playhouse's production of "Sanctuary City," which can be experienced from September 14th through October 9th. Photo courtesy of Zi Alikhan

While entertainment can and should come in all forms, sometimes it’s necessary to have overtones that lean a little more serious – and the upcoming Pasadena Playhouse production of Sanctuary City (September 14th through October 9th), written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Martyna Majok and directed by Zi Alikhan, does just that.Majok, who won the Pulitzer for her play Cost of Living, elaborates on a similar struggle in Sanctuary City that is, at its root, as human as it gets: the predicament of undocumented immigrants who find themselves caught between their native land, which can no longer fundamentally support them, and the perpetual agony of not being afforded the opportunity to grow in their new home in the United States (specifically Newark, NJ), which can be more cruel than kind.

The specter of dashed dreams, like the sword of Damocles, hangs over the heads of the two principal teenage characters, known only as B (Miles Fowler) and G (Ana Nicolle Chavez). The fact that the audience only knows these two close friends, both DREAMers, by their first initials is symbolic of how unrealized these two are to themselves as much as they are to the nation that houses them but is stubborn to pay any acknowledgement. B and G are beset by an incessant turmoil in their hearts, compounded by paranoid-inducing external factors they strive to elude, even in a sanctuary city like Newark, lest they are suddenly at the mercy of a capricious judgment resulting in their deportation.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Martyna Majok is the playwright of “Sanctuary City,” which will see its third production — this time at the Pasadena Playhouse — between September 14th and October 9th. Photo courtesy of Martyna Majok

To an outsider who isn’t encumbered by having their powers and entitlements stripped of them, to live in these circumstances is measurably dire, but for those who have no choice but to hide in plain sight, the suffering within is overwhelmingly profound. Sanctuary City seeks to understand the human condition of undocumented immigrants more so from the inside – in heads and hearts – and so do with nuance and irreproachable conviction. It is an important play with an equally significant message.

Recently, Zi Alikhan spoke with LAexcites about his experience directing Sanctuary City, including obstacles he encountered, his personal connection to the play, what audiences can expect, and what the most relevant takeaways are for him.

Compared to the other two directors who have taken on this play, how do you think your vision differs from theirs?

Alikhan: I think the other two directors, Rebecca (Frecknall) and David (Mendizábal), are geniuses. I saw Rebecca’s production, and I’m still impacted by it a year-and-a-half later. I’m a fan of their work and voice in the theater. Like them, I want to ask and investigate in the context of Sanctuary City – and how the play lives and breathes, and how important it is to tell it to the Los Angeles community in 2022. Every moment of conceiving this production has been with the community of L.A. in mind. My mission is not to compete with other productions that have happened before but to be in conversation with them. The different productions represent the same tapestry of undocumented immigrants as told through Martyna’s story.

What was it like directing the two principals, Miles Fowler and Ana Nicolle Chavez, along with Kanoa Goo who plays Henry, and did you feel that it would be daunting to keep audiences engaged throughout with only a cast of three actors?

Alikhan: No, I didn’t have any concerns because I have rarely encountered a play that is as vital and full of life with a real heartbeat at the center of it. At the first table read, it became clear the play has so much electricity and vitality running through it – so I had no fear. It’s a gorgeous text in conversation with the artists who come to meet it, and it’s been our job to come to rehearsal every day to meet Martyna’s play and be truthful and honest in our engagement with it.

The auditions of Miles and Ana Nicolle also blew me away, and every day rehearsing with these two has been educational for me; they lead with grace and humor and they both remind me that our job here is to pursue authenticity and the telling of the truth. During rehearsal, there’s never been a day without tons of laughter – and there is a real sense of life at the center of the rehearsal room, which I hope is experienced by the audience. Through this play, we intend to pay our respects and honor the millions of Americans this story represents.

Ana Nicolle Chavez plays “G” in Pasadena Playhouse’s production of “Sanctuary City.” Photo courtesy of Ana Nicolle Chavez

Martyna Majok’s Sanctuary City is undoubtedly an undocumented immigrant story with challenges and dangers associated with not just fitting in a country like the United States, but feeling validated as a human being deserving of respect. Do you, personally, relate to this on some level?

Alikhan: I am a child of immigrants and I believe all of us in the cast are either immigrants or children of immigrants. I think it’s very important to be clear that my story is not one of a family that is undocumented, so coming to this play has been a process of care in stepping aside to recognize the story is not entirely my own and that I’m a visitor to the lives of these characters at the center of the play. While I resonate with the subject matter, there is a depth to the experience of these characters that is different than mine – and that has been very important to the rehearsal process where we’ve examined where we’re similar and different. My goal is to serve the realities of these characters.

Is there a scene, specifically, that you found to be particularly challenging to direct, and how did you overcome any obstacles you encountered?

Alikhan: One of the most critical questions in our rehearsal process has been about memory. It’s been exciting to explore how memory is something we all experience in different ways. It’s important to be specific why some may be remembering something one way and others another way. I think it’s also crucial to acknowledge and remember that undocumented Americans are not a monolith; this is central to the play in that the experience of being undocumented is not one experience. The theme relating to memory has been challenging and exciting.

Miles Fowler plays “B” in Pasadena Playhouse’s production of “Sanctuary City.” Photo courtesy of Miles Fowler

If there is one overarching message that you’d like audiences to come away with, what would you like it to be?

Alikhan: I did an interview yesterday with a journalist who asked, ‘What do you say to people who don’t agree with the themes of this play or who are upset after seeing it…have you considered them?’ I essentially said I hadn’t considered it, but I haven’t stopped thinking about the question as well as considering the experiences of those who watch this play.

An important takeaway is the universality of living in this country; ultimately, there is so much we share and so much of what keeps us divided is influenced by those in power who live by a different set of rules and whose objective is to keep the majority powerless. What is true is that, regardless of those power structures, we all have hearts that beat and brains that think, as well as the capability for love, joy, and grief.  The play honors this universality, and I hope people come experience that which I hope creates an expansion in their minds so they can interact with those whose lived experiences differ from their own. I truly hope people leave this play feeling more in touch with those around them more so than they did before seeing the production.

For more information about Pasadena Playhouse’s production of Sanctuary City, and to purchase tickets, please visit:


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