When asked who she is and what she does, Martyna Majok will often just say that she’s a playwright. However, when considering what playwriting means to her, Majok gives a different answer.
“I’m somebody who has a lot of questions and wants to live a fuller version of her life,” she told me over a Zoom call. “So I write plays that I can collaborate on with other artists to figure out my questions.”
These questions often lead to plays featuring frank discussions of identity and class—all related to the experiences of herself, her friends, and her family. Majok was born in Bytom, Poland, and moved to New Jersey with her single mother at a young age. Nearly all the plays she’s written follow immigrants living within the New Jersey area, and merge starkly beautiful imagery with a pragmatic, dry wit.
A graduate of the Yale School of Drama, Majok first introduced herself to DC audiences in 2015 with Round House Theatre’s world premiere production of Ironbound, a play she says tells her mother’s story. It was only three years later when Martyna Majok definitively entered the theatrical canon by winning the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play Cost of Living.
Now, Majok is in a position few playwrights achieve: having two major productions playing simultaneously on the East Coast. Cost of Living, following two disabled characters and their caregivers, is on Broadway. The show is making Broadway history by featuring disabled actors Gregg Mozgala and Katy Sullivan in complex lead roles. Sanctuary City, a play following two undocumented Americans as they come of age, is now also playing at DC’s Arena Stage.
Together, Cost of Living and Sanctuary City form a portrait of America that’s defined by economic precarity and personal grief, but also by aching vulnerability and communal care. I spoke virtually with Majok about her playwriting process, how she writes about family, and finding hope in impossible situations. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve been writing and working on both Cost of Living and Sanctuary City for extended periods of time now. Cost of Living had its world premiere in 2016, and you started writing Sanctuary City around 2017. What is it like spending so many years of your life with these plays?
It never really feels like spending that much time, because I’ll develop them over different periods. What I’ve discovered about the playwriting life is that it’s a balance of different stages of writing at the same time, including making space for new things to come. With Sanctuary City I was working on another play, queens, when the idea of that play came, and I just had to take a full three days to cancel everything and write Sanctuary City really quickly as if this sort of “friend” wouldn’t visit me again.
In terms of working on Cost of Living, I started working on it in 2014. I was nervous going into the first rehearsal for Broadway, so much so that I didn’t re-read it! I was afraid. Would I be over this play? I was like, “Oh it’s from a different time, will I not feel as connected to it as I did?” And so I waited until the first day of rehearsal, and actually with that play, I found it was more affecting this time. I think part of it had to do with the pandemic, and what we sort of collectively had all gone through. I was writing from a particular place of loss, and I think we shared a sense of loss. There’s a lot in that play that feels more relevant to my life, but maybe that’s because the plays are always smarter than us anyways! We might not be looking at certain things, but the plays know, and so I was catching up to what my play knew in 2014.
Something shared between Cost of Living and Sanctuary City is their structural inventiveness. In each play, there are two parts that could almost function completely on their own. In Cost of Living, audiences watch scenes of a recently paralyzed woman, Ani, and her husband, Eddie, alternate with scenes of John, a man with cerebral palsy, and his new caregiver, Jess. In Sanctuary City, for the first 40 minutes, audiences watch the undocumented characters B and G go through high school in over 80 scenes. However, the rest of Sanctuary City takes place years later and in one scene over the course of one night. What attracts you to writing plays in such distinct parts?
I think I’m always going to be playing with time in some way. Content and form are always bound, and when I started writing the first part of Sanctuary City, I realized I was writing in memory, in association, in fragments of these two peoples’ lives. I didn’t realize until we were developing the play in rehearsal that I had kind of created this sort of “snow globe” of friendship. They’re safe, it’s their sanctuary, they’re together, they’re in this little world that they have created for themselves which then gets shattered in part two. I was like, “I think we have to sit with them in the reality of what their lives actually look like now.” It’s not going to be the flashing colors and the romance and fantasy that they existed in part one; it’s the cold hard facts of their existence.
All my plays go back and forth in time. Not flashbacks, but actually living in those different times. Maybe it’s because I’m interested in befores and afters. Maybe it has to do with being an immigrant and also watching my mother’s life, where it feels like there’s such a clear before and after. The line is so clear of, “Oh I lived there, and now I live here, and I’m different people.” I’m really interested in looking at those scenes of a life in relation to each other: the seeds you sow in one part of your life, and what grows in another part of your life.
Another commonality between both shows is the presence of mother characters even though they are not physically onstage. Why do you think motherhood plays such a large role in your work?
The most important relationship in my life has been and always will be my mother. We came to the country together. It was her choice to come here that made me have a very different life. I mean, she gave me a name that sounds different in the language in which she gave it to me than the one I’m actually called in America now. That’s become who I am.
I’m fascinated by her story of coming to the country when she was 28 years old. She had never spoken English, and it was a time when there wasn’t Skype, there wasn’t Facebook, it was harder to maintain contact with the place that you were leaving. I just find that choice and that journey so fascinating. Also, she doesn’t tell me much about her life, so I feel like I have to pursue the answers in writing! I guess what I find interesting about playwriting is you have to occupy a lot of consciousnesses. You have to live in a lot of people’s experiences. I have to ask a very specific question to get an answer from my mother, and I wouldn’t even know what questions to ask her about her life and about her experiences. So I think I sort of live as a version of her to try to understand her, and myself.
Something I appreciate about both Cost of Living and Sanctuary City is that they follow such slice-of-life moments. Many times when there are representations of disabled people, working-class people, immigrant people, they are held up as inspirational figures or activists trying to change the world. Why is it important for you to put a spotlight on characters who are just going about their everyday lives, just trying to make things work?
When I first started writing plays, I didn’t have it in my mind that I was writing plays about “immigrants,” or plays about “women,” or plays about “poverty.” I was writing about my friends and family, and people from the outside were like, “Oh you’re writing about all these issues!” I thought, well that’s not untrue, but for me it was always personal.
For a lot of my friends and family, policy and political realities were just inherent to our lives, immigration issues were inherent to our lives, being in low-income situations informed how we moved through the world, what choices we make, and what we’re able or not able to do. So it always came from a personal place. It never felt like putting a spotlight on them.
What do you hope immigrant audiences, disabled audiences, queer audiences, and working-class audiences get out of seeing their stories onstage?
The first “immigrant fiction” I read was Jhumpa Lahiri. I read The Interpreter of Maladies and I was so moved. This is an author who was writing about Bengali Americans, Bengali Brits, and I saw myself so much in her stories, and I saw my family in them. I just felt invited to the table, and I felt like there might be space for me, which was very encouraging. I felt as if my story did have value because I saw what this story did to me. And so, some of the best experiences are when somebody from not-Poland comes up to me and says, “Oh that’s my mother, that’s my cousin, and I connected to that.” It’s the greatest feeling that you’re accessing something truthful, and we can all sort of commune with the realities of our lives in hopes of being seen and having other people see us.
I always try to write with an active invitation and generosity. I try to do two things. I want to invite people who are not from the world of the show to feel welcome in it. At the same time, for the folks that are from the world, I don’t wanna pander, I don’t wanna over-explain. I want someone who is from Jersey, from my high school, or with their parents to say “that’s right!” and not feel like I’m educating about my experience; it just feels like shorthand. I want both of those audience members to feel welcome in these stories. If I side one way or the other, I’ll write in my shorthand [laughs] of how I grew up and hope people meet me, and I guess that’s an act of hope. I hope that they do meet me. And for the folks that are onstage, for the people who those are their stories, I want them to feel seen and know our stories matter. I want them to share all the epic beauty and humor and frustration and complexity that we live and that I feel we deserve.
I love this idea of “an act of hope.” I was thinking about hope in relation to both Cost of Living and Sanctuary City. For your characters, few things systematically or politically change from the start of the show to the end of the show. Still, I find hope in just seeing how deeply the characters care for each other. Is hope something you want to give your audiences?
I’m about to publish a joint collection of Sanctuary City and Ironbound together, and I was thinking, “Do I want to make any edits?” And I thought, “I’m going to add a note to both plays that these characters are fighting this hard because they love this hard.” It is because their love is this strong and this meaningful that they are working so hard. And I guess therein is the hope, is within that love.
It sounds mad corny, but for Cost of Living, at the end of that play, both of those people have been battered by life, and the act of hope is continuing to reach out to another person. They could give up, but they are still going to pursue some better version of their lives. They’re still going to pursue human connection because it’s so essential. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the morning for them, but I know that at least tonight they’re going to be okay. And the next morning the struggle continues, but hope can be, they’re good for tonight, that can be hope. They found somebody to share the night with.
For Sanctuary City, even though the character at the end of the play is facing many years of a certain kind of limiting policy, they’re still questioning, they’re still going even as time moves past them. The desire and the dream still continue, which is also work. Keeping that alive, and watering that dream, takes work. Especially when life and policy have been so unkind and unfair to that person. It is an act of hope, of, “maybe it’ll be better.” Some people may think it’s delusion, but what else can you do?
Sanctuary City plays through November 27, 2022, in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, DC. Tickets (56–$72) may be purchased online, by phone at 202-488-3300 (Tuesday–Sunday, 12:00-8:00 p.m.), or in person at the Sales Office at 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, DC (on performance days, starting 90 minutes prior to curtain).
Running Time: One hour 45 minutes, no intermission.
The program for Sanctuary City is online here.
COVID Safety: Arena Stage requires that patrons wear facial masks while in its theaters. Arena additionally recommends, but no longer requires, that patrons wear masks in the Mead Center’s large open spaces, such as the Lower Lobby, Grand Lobby, Molly Smith Study, and café area. Arena employees and volunteers will maintain masking in all spaces. These conditions are subject to change, and Arena continues to consult with medical professionals, monitor government best practice recommendations, and engage in industry trainings to ensure the health and safety of our patrons, artists, and staff. For up-to-date information, visit arenastage.org/safety.
Cost of Living plays through Sunday, November 6, 2022, at Manhattan Theatre Club, performing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, NYC. For tickets ($74–$298, including fees), go online. Masks are required for everyone inside the theater, except while actively eating or drinking.
The trauma of two undocumented teens in powerful ‘Sanctuary City’ at Arena (review by Amy Kotkin, October 27, 2022)
The need for connection and caring in MTC’s ‘Cost of Living’ at Broadway’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (review by Deb Miller, October 7, 2022)