Broadway throws open its doors as it returns from its longest shutdown

New York City’s theaters are finally reopening after they were shut down on March 12, 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic began to hit the city. This has been the longest shutdown in Broadway’s history. Major hits like “Lion King” and “Hamilton” are back, and smaller productions are returning too. NewsHour Weekend’s Zachary Green spoke with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Martyna Majok, whose new play, “Sanctuary City,” opened a year-and-a-half later than planned.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Tonight's Tony awards for the 2019-2020 season that preceded Broadway's shut down during the pandemic will be presented just a few weeks after New York's theaters officially reopened.

    Major Broadway hits, like "Hamilton" and "The Lion King", have returned, as well as smaller, off-Broadway productions.

    NewsHour Weekend's Zachary Green spoke with the author of "Sanctuary City"–a new play, which recently received a glowing review in the New York Times. It opened this week– 18 months later than expected.

  • G:

    Can you let me in?

  • B:

    You climbed up the fire escape?

  • G:

    Can I come in?

  • B:

    What time is it? You know I have a test tomorrow.

  • Zachary Green:

    In March of last year, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Martyna Majok, was gearing up for the off-Broadway premiere of her new play, "Sanctuary City", produced by New York Theatre Workshop.

  • Martyna Majok:

    We were 10, 11 days away from opening. So we already had previews. Audiences were coming in. We're having such a good time. And I was like, oh, certainly the– the shoe's going to drop soon and, like, all of this goodness is going to come crashing down. I did not think that would be a global pandemic.

  • Zachary Green:

    On March 12th, 2020, New York's theaters shut down, as COVID-19 began to spread throughout the city.

  • Zachary Green:

    Can you talk to me about what it was like having to– to shut down production on this show in 2020?

  • Martyna Majok:

    Oh, man, it was devastating! I was sad that I wouldn't get to see these people the next day. The work that we made and the work that we're really proud of– we wouldn't be able to share it with other people. The call was not mine. I think I tried to bargain with the theater. If I could just like have one more performance. Maybe The New York Times can come in and review it. Something where I just would feel like this existed.

  • Zachary Green:

    For more than a year, theater companies, like New York Theatre Workshop, have had to pivot to online readings and performances in order to showcase their work.

    But this month, after New York lifted capacity restrictions in the state, Broadway and many other theaters have begun to reopen.

    "Sanctuary City" is the first play to be staged by New York Theatre Workshop in front of a live audience since the shutdown.

  • Zachary Green:

    What's it like seeing something performed that you basically had to kind of put down for over a year?

  • Martyna Majok:

    It just feels great. It's the same people that we had last year. And so, um, I wondered if we would feel distance from each other and if– if it would be hard to kind of gather the energy and the excitement that existed 18 months ago. I was really moved and surprised at how quickly we can just go back to– to being friends and coworkers and– and working on something that we all really love.

  • Zachary Green:

    "Sanctuary City" follows two young immigrant friends–one a naturalized citizen and the other undocumented–as they navigate high school and young adult life together.

  • G:

    What happened?

  • B:

    She's going back.

  • G:

    Who?

  • B:

    Back home. My mom.

  • G:

    Back?

  • B:

    She's going back.

  • Zachary Green:

    Majok, who emigrated from Poland to the U.S. when she was five years old, says the play is based in large part on her own experiences growing up in a working-class immigrant community in New Jersey.

  • Martyna Majok:

    I was naturalized when I was 17. I was able to see what opportunities I was able to access, that others just were not. People that may have worked just as hard and had similar backgrounds, had similar experiences, but there were just less things that they could do. Less doors were open to them. To feel and to know that you are not wanted in the place that you have grown up, in the place that you were brought to, in the place that you maybe even love is pretty devastating. And so, I– I can imagine that that has probably played, um, played a role in the way that they have moved through the world.

  • B:

    So she's going back.

  • G:

    What about you?

  • B:

    She said I can decide.

  • G:

    Decide what?

  • B:

    If I want to stay or go back.

  • G:

    What?

  • B:

    Yeah.

  • Zachary Green:

    To present that world to an audience during a global pandemic, Majok and the cast and crew of "Sanctuary City" are taking numerous health precautions.

  • Martyna Majok:

    I have never had to spit in a vial more times than this past month. We were testing once a week at first, and then that quickly changed to three times a week. Everyone who enters the theater has to have been vaccinated. So we need their photo IDs and their proof of vaccination and masks are worn all the time. There are ushers that will check to make sure that you are wearing your mask or your neighbor is wearing your mask. Everyone's been trying to be as safe as possible just so that we can bring the play to people again.

  • Zachary Green:

    Could you talk about why you think it's important for people to come back to the theater after being away for all this time?

  • Martyna Majok:

    I think that everybody is going to make the choice that they feel is most comfortable for them. We're doing our best to make it safe. But I totally understand people who don't feel– who don't– who don't feel ready. I have calculated the risks and to me it's– to me it's– it's worth it. It is a really wonderful feeling to be in a room with other people experiencing something together. What has moved me in the theater is when I have– when I've seen stories that have made me feel less alone in whatever other– my circumstances or my strangeness or just, you know, the strangeness of being a human. And so I hope that this can also do that for them, for somebody else as well.

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