When playwright Martyna Majok was a young girl, she, her mother, and her sister, emigrated from Poland to the United States. She grew up in a low-income household, unable to afford visits back to her native country. But it’s not just her own experience that inspired queens, Majok’s latest work, currently running at LCT3’s Claire Tow Theater through March 25.
Her play delves into the lives of immigrants from Poland, Belarus, Honduras, Afghanistan, and more. And so with queens—as she did with her previous play Cost of Living featuring stories of people with physical disabilities—Majok makes the too-often invisible people seen.
An award-winning playwright, Majok is a graduate of Juilliard with a masters from the Yale School of Drama, who has earned The Greenfield Prize, The Lanford Wilson Prize, Lilly Award, Helen Merrill Emerging Playwright Award, Helen Hayes Award, The Kennedy Center Jean Kennedy Smith Award, New York Theatre Workshop 2050 Fellowship, Jane Chambers Feminist Playwriting Prize, The Merage Foundation Fellowship for the American Dream, and more.
Here, Majok speaks to the inspiration for her play, the choice to feature an all-female cast, and the one question she hopes all audiences ask themselves as they exit queens.
It’s true you are an immigrant, but, of course, other works of yours are stories completely separate from that experience and those issues. Tell me about your inspiration to write a story specifically about women immigrants, and why now felt like the right time for you.
Martyna Majok: When I decided to pursue playwriting as an adult, any sort of income I was making went to basic survival. To paying my rent and buying myself what time I could to write. Then a very dear family member passed away in Poland. I wasn’t able to go to his funeral—I had no savings—and I realized that I had, by default, made a choice to pursue a career versus seeing my family all these years. I’d chosen this life in America. And a life in the American theatre... It's costly and risky for anyone but especially for someone with no financial safety net. When I finally did get to Poland, I realized that life had gone on without me. This made me think of all of the people I had grown up with—and my mother—that left their home countries to resettle in America for the various reasons that they did and the things they had given up in even stronger ways than what I had experienced. And was it worth it, life here, for what they had to give up?
The second [motivation] came around the time of the election when I began hearing many of my childhood friends—people who were immigrants themselves or children of immigrants, some whose parents were even undocumented for a time—saying things like “no refugees” or “build the wall.” To me, this was paradoxical. You know the experience from the inside. You are the experience. What is this mentality of drawing the bridge up so no one else can enter once you're safely and securely inside? Is this what happens across generations, this loss of empathy? Is this what happens to some people when you become American? Where is this thinking of exclusion coming from? When did some people forget their family's ties to the immigrant experience and why?
And the choice to focus on women?
The choice for only female characters came in the process of writing. I kept imagining and generating scenes and situations that involved mostly women and eventually decided that that was what the world of the play would be. I realized later that it was the higher stakes choice. Women have more to lose. And this is especially so for female immigrants of low-income. Across a number of cultures, women are expected to be the ones to take care of family—both children and the elderly. They are paid less in this country for the work they do. The women in the basement in this play are people for whom things have broken, not only where they are coming from in some way—whether it’s personal, or political, or economic—but in America, too. Some is bad luck, some are decisions that turned out not as they’d hoped. They perhaps began living within immigrant communities in America at first, and then there was some falling out, some break, and they come to this place. It isn’t a safe haven, necessarily; it’s just a basement apartment that happens to have immigrant women living here. It’s understood that this is a safer place because the people here look out for each other and have experienced similar things.
Also, I was doing a reading of a portion of the play over a year ago and at the talkback after, a man in the audience asked me “How would this play be different if it were all men?” I joked that it would be produced more. And just as he was telling me that I “clearly didn't understand the question,” I told him that if he wanted a play of all men, or of men as the central featured characters, that there were plenty of those to choose from. It just wasn't mine. I suspect that sealed the deal for me, then and there. Only women in this play.
What made you decide to write about immigrants from multiple countries? What research did you do to ensure the authenticity of each of these experiences (Polish, Belarusian, Afghani etc.) to make them feel distinct?
I think exactly for the reason you mention—which is that most focus on a single culture (like the extraordinary An Ordinary Muslim [at New York Theatre Workshop], which I loved so much). I grew up in a multicultural neighborhood where almost everyone was from somewhere else. And we rarely see conversations between immigrants from different places onstage. I think people are more alike than we are different. We all understand love and loss, betrayal, despair, hope, etc. And I suspected characters that might think they have no shorthand or commonalities might discover that they do. And maybe it's because I didn't have a big family here in America—they were all far away—so I was often constructing makeshift extended families from those of my friends. And my makeshift family was international.
As for research, much of it was checking dates and histories of countries of origin (including Poland) after the first drafts of the characters were written. I never wanted this play to feel academic, but I did want to ensure I was honoring cultural and historical specificity. I wrote characters outside of my identity, but I was constantly checking in and being diligent about what I was putting out there, even though many of the characters and their stories are modeled on folks I know.
Are these characters inspired by people you know?
Aspects of these characters and parts of their histories are inspired by people I know. Many are composites of folks I know, of myself and my family or folks I grew up around. It feels like resurrecting ghosts, watching these actors sometimes. Like getting to visit these people again, hear their stories again, people that may no longer be living, stories that would have maybe no longer been shared.
In another interview, you talk about wondering who you might have been if you grew up in your native Poland. It’s a sentiment many children who emigrated young or who are first generation born in America feel the same way. Is this play a sort of catharsis in contemplating that?
I don't think my plays give me catharsis—they give me more words and ways of looking at what's going on under the surface, at what feels at times strange and intangible. But the feelings and questions remain. I will never know what that other life might have been, who this other version of myself might be.
Early on in the show you have a line that says “Progress means to forget.” In the scene, the women are talking about how to create lives in America. But do you believe in this as a truth to help us all move forward? In what way would “forgetting” be helpful in terms of moving forward in this country? OR, is the assumption that forgetting is good actually the enemy? And perhaps to move forward in this country we actually need to remember?
Every time a character says that phrase—it's a phrase that travels across time and character in this play—it's usually countered by another character. I don't think completely forgetting is the answer to moving forward. I think an awareness of history is vital. We get in trouble when we forget—particularly when it's a country that encourages rewriting or erasing certain acts and oppression. I think when some of the women in the play advise forgetting as a survival tactic, it's because remembering is painful. And that can hold you back. That can derail you. For some, remembering is the siren's song to going home, which for for everyone is a complication (as is staying—it's none of it uncomplicated). And for some, it is even an impossibility.
You address the issue of silence through Renia—how she chooses not to speak because of judgments passed when you hear her accent, and how every accent carries bias. Brits are sophisticated. French, cultured. Eastern European, war torn. What can we do to help break the silence?
Politically and interpersonally? Empathy and time. Get to know a person and what they're up against. Then, reflect that understanding in policy that does not obstruct their basic human rights. Specifically in art? Produce the plays. At the large venues. With the greater resources, time, and attention. Greenlight the television shows, films, literature, art. Many of us do not talk and listen enough to those that share drastically different opinions of the world. In my experience, both sides are already gearing up for battle as soon as you realize you passionately believe completely different things, which is a tactic that rarely moves the other. Or, even when both sides "agree," as most theatre audiences and theatre creators do, sometimes the conversation and understanding can still be superficial. Perhaps the majority of stories that audience has been drawn to or had access to have been mainly of one kind—often immigrant success stories, in this case—making an audience perhaps assume that all such stories are or should be the same, no gray area, no variation or different outcome. That if one immigrant was able to make it, then surely all should and that something must be wrong with you—or your story—if you—or your characters—didn't. What's one way we can start to break the silence? Stories. By listening and being listened to—loudly listened to. By valuing these stories. Widely sharing them. By considering not just what your audience might have been to date but who else they could be now and in the future.
As a playwright, your work incites questions about immigration and personhood and prejudice. If there is one question you hope people contemplate as they leave the theatre, what is it?
Who are these people on the train with me?
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.