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Coronavirus devastates Broadway and off-Broadway, leaving actors and theaters adrift

The day after New York’s mayor declared a state of emergency, the company of ‘Sanctuary City’ gathered for a final performance

Sanctuary City closed before it ever had a chance to open.

Playwright Martyna Majok, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for Cost of Living, began working in 2017 on Sanctuary City, a play set in the early 2000s about two teenage immigrants — one undocumented and one a naturalized citizen. New York Theatre Workshop had scheduled opening night for March 23, with the show closing April 12.

And now, like so many productions, it was abruptly closed as the spread of COVID-19, has forced changes in daily life throughout the United States and the world.

Wednesday evening, New York mayor Bill de Blasio declared a state of emergency. The Broadway League, an organization of theater owners and producers, shut down all 31 current Broadway productions through at least April 12. Although de Blasio said that shows with audiences of fewer than 500 people would be allowed as long as they operated at half capacity, nearly every off-Broadway production and off-off Broadway production in the city either closed or postponed their productions scheduled for March and April. The revenue from half-full theaters wouldn’t have been enough to cover operating costs.

New York theaters have shut down before, but never with this level of ambiguity around when they might reopen. In 2001, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, all 23 Broadway shows reopened 48 hours later. Still, actors, crew, and others needed to gather later that month to record an ad urging audiences to return.

It was such a distinctive situation that the HBO series Watchmen parodied the ad, urging tourists to come back to New York after an attack by an extraterrestrial squid leveled the city. The last time theaters closed because of a pandemic might well be in 1592, when London theaters shut down as the Black Death ravaged Europe. Even during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, Broadway theaters kept their doors open, although some other, smaller theaters were closed.

So this week’s shutdown was a devastating development for the off-Broadway community, which operates in theaters of 100 to 500 seats and often lacks the insurance protections that may offer a safety net to bigger and more expensive Broadway productions. March and April are also prime time for theater awards season, which means that theater companies were shuttering some of their most promising work.

Jasai Chase-Owens (right) and Sharlene Cruz (left) starred in the New York Theatre Workshop production of Sanctuary City, which was forced to close before its opening night because of COVID-19.

Joan Marcus

Sanctuary City was in that category. A successful run could have been life-changing not just for its author, but for British director Rebecca Frecknall, an Olivier Award winner (London’s version of the Tonys) who was directing her first show in New York, and for actors Jasai Chase-Owens, Sharlene Cruz, and Austin Smith.

The show is about two teens, played by Chase-Owens and Cruz, who have been friends since third grade. Both have parents who are caught in the maze of the American immigration system. At 17, Chase-Owens’ character, who is unnamed, is left to fend for himself in America while his mother, who is undocumented, returns to her home country. Smith plays a law student who also has immigrant parents. The New York Theatre Workshop was developing plans for schoolchildren to see the work, especially groups from the heavily immigrant community of Washington Heights.

“That’s the hardest,” Cruz said. “I wish, being a kid, to watch a show like this, to see myself on stage, is so precious. That’s what makes this, this season, even harder.”

Friday afternoon, a small group of actors, critics, and friends convened at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in Greenwich Village for a final performance of Sanctuary City, which was filmed with three cameras for archival purposes. There are no current plans to release the footage.

At the Lortel, the mood was one of somber disbelief. Audience members shuffled to find seats marked with blue painter’s tape — about every third seat was marked, a measure that ensured the recommended social distancing of 6 feet to avoid sneeze particles. Still, artists engaged in mournful embraces before and after the show.

Actors from New York Theatre Workshop production of Endlings, another show with themes about race and immigration, were present. So was School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play playwright Jocelyn Bioh, as was School Girls actor Mirirai Sithole. Andy Lucien, an actor in The Siblings Play at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, showed up to support his friends before reporting for the last two performances of his own show, one Friday night and one more Saturday.

“I remember working on a workshop of this awhile back and just knowing it was going to be fantastic,” Lucien said. “With everything that’s been going on, I just wanted to come out and show love to the other shows closing down.”

Uncertainty loomed. Plays and musicals are not like television shows or films. When production is shut down, especially before a show has a chance to open and garner reviews, there’s no guarantee that it will be rescheduled sometime in the future, because theater seasons are planned at least a year in advance. Before the COVID-19 shutdown, many theater companies had already sent emails announcing their 2020-2021 seasons. Reviews are crucial for future productions; it’s part of how smaller theaters around the country make decisions about what to program. So when a show doesn’t even have a debut, Majok said, “it’s almost as though it didn’t happen … it’s ephemeral.”

Playwright Martyna Majok takes in a moment on the stage of the final performance of Sanctuary City at Lucille Lortel Theatre in New York.

Josiah Bania

At the Lortel, actors were trying to wrap their heads around what their futures would be like for the next two months, with expected paychecks having suddenly evaporated.

“It’s been hard, especially for the off-Broadway and lower,” Lucien said. “And the regional [theaters] — it hits us a little differently. Already having a lower pay scale, having runs that were going to end within the time frame — before April 12, having the expectation that there was going to be some funds coming in. This could have advanced their careers. People should have seen the work [Chase-Owens, Cruz, and Smith] were doing, because it’s spectacular.”

Backup gigs, such as working as a nanny, catering, and restaurant work, are no longer easy fallbacks, because those industries too, have been affected by the pandemic. Many parents who would normally need child care are working from home. Parties have been canceled and public health officials have advised people not to congregate in public spaces.

For now, questions abound. Is it possible, or practical, to film theater work and share it online? What gets lost in the translation from live performance to screen?

A San Francisco production of Toni Stone, which was forced to close as well, is planning to make a recording of the show available to stream for ticket-buyers, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Sanctuary City was written and produced with the idea that it would be seen live. It’s staged on a simple set. Nearly everything takes place on a spare platform that’s tilted at an angle toward the audience. Much of its atmosphere and emotion comes from Isabella Byrd’s evocative lighting design, and from the performances of its three actors.

It’s almost the exact opposite of a play like American Son, which was staged on a set built for a stage-to-screen transfer. TV producer Shonda Rhimes was a producer on the show, and from the outset, there was a plan for American Son to be filmed. After the show’s run on Broadway, it was released on Netflix.

Playwright Young Jean Lee, whose show We’re Gonna Die was in the midst of a run at Tony Kiser Theater before the shutdown, shared a link to an April 2011 production performed at Joe’s Pub, on Vimeo.


The PBS show Great Performances has long functioned as an ambassador for theater — it’s how I first became enchanted with Audra McDonald; as a child, I saw her in Ragtime in my parents’ North Carolina living room. The Metropolitan Opera, which has also closed, along with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Philharmonic, and Carnegie Hall, broadcasts performances in high-definition in movie theaters across America as a way of extending its reach beyond Manhattan. But movie theaters too, have become places to avoid in the age of COVID-19.

On a sunny, warm Friday evening, when the area would normally be bustling with audience members making their way to various events and taking selfies in front of its famous fountain, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts was little more than a silent ghost town.

“In times like these, when we’re going through it, we come back to the theater,” Cruz said. “That’s what makes it so sad.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.