Natasha Sinha(Associate Director/LCT3): Hi Martyna, and welcome to LCT3! We’re so happy to be in rehearsals with you now after commissioning queens. Can you talk about your personal inspiration for writing about these particular women who leave their lives in various home countries to come to the United States?
Martyna Majok (Playwright): I was born in Poland, and my entire family stayed in Poland— except for my mom, and my sister who was born here. We grew up low-income, and because of finances, we weren’t able to go back to Poland as often as we would have liked. Then when I decided to pursue playwriting, any sort of income I was making went to basic survival and buying myself time to write. A number of years went by that way and then family members that I was really close to passed away in Poland. I wasn’t able to go to their funerals, and I kind of realized that I had, by default, made a choice to pursue a career versus seeing my family. I’d chosen this life in America.
So when I won the PoNY Fellowship [a grant for early career playwrights, given by The Lark], the first thing I did was open up a credit card for the first time and I bought tickets for me and my mom and my husband to go to Poland. And when I got there, I realized that life had gone on without me. It was just too late. They all knew who I was, but the connections had frayed, and it made me think of all of the people I had grown up with—and my mother—that had to leave 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.
NS: Those internal conflicts are so deeply-rooted in character in this play, and yet the play is also so naturally politically resonant. How did you decide to focus on this time span (2001-2017), which feels very intentional and loaded in terms of what you’re tackling?
MM: After 9/11, there was an increased scapegoating and suspicion of immigrants. Security was heightened. I felt there to be a heightened awareness and a feeling of danger in the community I grew up in. It’s this suspicion that has largely led us to the moment we’re in now in this country.
NS: Absolutely. It existed before, 9/11 increased it all, and now we can draw a line from the xenophobia of that moment to the “shithole countries” phrase that made headlines last week. The women depicted within all this are so specifically written (and intentionally from the specific countries they are from), and I’m curious about how class enters the conversation for you in terms of the kinds of the women you are representing.
MM: Because I grew up low-income, it tends to be the default for me to craft stories of people living in that world. It’s also a world that’s more rarely shown onstage. And the stakes are higher for somebody who is coming here and doesn’t have a financial safety net (or any sort of safety net). There are many immigration stories. There’s not one representative immigration story. There are people who more easily establish themselves because of a large support network of people in this country and money—if you have a network and money, it’s going to be easier for you to settle into a new place whether that’s moving from New York to Los Angeles or moving from Honduras to New York. Without those things, you are more vulnerable when things break for you, as things tend to do in life. The immigrant who is low-income experiences the pressure to be near perfect because they don’t have the safety net that perhaps others 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.
NS: Yes! Definitely. And also… it’s laugh-out-loud funny.
MM: [laughs] Yes! It’s funny!
NS: Yeah! And I think that also speaks to the idea that in real life these women have to be sort of straightforward and earnest and grateful and perfectly moral in a way any real individual can’t actually be. Humor is so human, though, and the women in this play are so full of strength and humor. Can you talk about why you veer toward that rather than a more moralistic fable about unfortunate women who are dying to get to some perfect gleaming America?
MM: I just think to not have humor would be dishonest about the way that human beings live their lives in general— wherever they come from, whatever their situations are. Humor for me is perspective on your situation and the world you live in. Calling out a bunch of bullshit is a lot of where the humor comes from. There is no self-pity for these women but they do have a clear-eyed perspective.
I’ve learned that if I wrote the situations I want to write about in any other way, people might be closed off to them. Because they’re difficult. So I try to create an opening. I’ve found humor to be a very disarming mechanism. I want to write plays generously, to make plays that entertain and lift a story (and an audience) without compromising the truth. And to me, truth is bound with humor—it just makes sense that it’s part of the characters’ worlds. It would be dishonest to have no joy or sass in this story.
NS: And, for those of us who are concerned about what’s happening in this country, you can read the news and see the statistics and stay on top of the think-pieces—but a play like this puts a relatable and full human being in front of you. There’s an in to what is happening right now that you can only really get with strong exciting storytelling—so we’re so lucky we have you! It feels like a necessary piece of the puzzle.
MM: People read numbers. Statistics. We read articles about policies that are being made and supported by people for/about people they might not actually, fully, genuinely, know. So this is my invitation: Sit with us. Get to know this experience and these people a bit more. I’m trying to contribute a fuller portrait of these women. People I grew up with. People I deeply love.
Check back soon for Part 2 of LCT3-D with Martyna Majok!