When Martyna Majok first wrote a play in high school, she had never seen one. “I understood it as a movie you didn’t have enough money to make,” she says.
But the play won a New Jersey statewide contest. Majok went on to study theater and playwriting, first at the University of Chicago, then at Yale University’s School of Drama and the Juilliard School. She won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play “Cost of Living.”
Now Majok is back in Chicago, getting ready for a production of her 2020 play “Sanctuary City,” at Steppenwolf Theatre, where it will run from September 14 through November 18. Majok says she’s thrilled to be back in the city where she first seriously studied theater.
“When I fly in, I always start to cry,” Majok says. “It’s the city where I became a playwright, where I found the love of the thing I feel I’ve given my life to.”
She says she always dreamed of having a show at the Steppenwolf. “It’s a place that inspired me so much—the productions I’ve seen, the actors, that visceral, muscular acting Steppenwolf is really known for,” Majok says. “It helped me translate my heart and my past and my story.”
Majok’s journey to becoming one of the most highly regarded young playwrights in the United States was full of both struggle and unexpected good luck. A slim, dark-eyed, dark-haired woman with a ready laugh, Majok was born in Bytom, in Upper Silesia, Poland, a few years before the fall of communism. Her mother, Justyna, brought her to New Jersey as a young child, and Majok grew up mostly in Kearny, in a working-class, multicultural immigrant community. Her stepfather, a construction worker, was controlling and abusive.
Majok’s maternal grandparents came to the United States for a while, in the hope of getting Justyna to move back home. But her grandmother fell seriously ill, and they had to return to Europe. To cope in a violent household, Majok would hide in her room, which led to a lot of time spent reading, drawing, painting and writing.
“I would get an assignment from my teachers to write two pages about something and I would write twenty-five—those poor, overburdened public school teachers!” says Majok. One teacher encouraged her to enter the play competition.
Later, Majok worked at a literacy center to help teach immigrants and their children English. She wrote scripts to give students “muscle memory” in the new language, but again, she strayed beyond the assignment.
“They started to get more and more elaborate, like involving a murder heist at the bank, or an affair between the baristas, and they just needed to know how to order a sandwich,” Majok says.
“Cabaret” and college
Besides working part-time jobs and going to high school, Majok used to gamble at a pool hall. “I was a wayward child,” she says. “I was out ‘til all hours.”
One night, she won forty-five dollars, and on a whim, used the money to see “Cabaret” in New York City. The only thing she knew about the show was that it featured actor John Stamos. Her mother, a cleaning lady, had found a pamphlet about the show in someone’s recycling. “My mom says, ‘Uncle Jesse from “Full House” is in New York.’”
Sitting in the cheap seats, Majok found her destiny.
“It was the most moving experience to see theater, to see that show, because it was about difficult subject matter, but it was generous. Literally, the first song is ‘Welcome.’ It felt like it wanted me there, and I was so moved by that gesture of someone making something for me and wanting me to have a good time without compromising the realities of what the story is,” Majok says. “I thought, ‘I want to spend the rest of my life doing for other people what this did for me.’”
“Cabaret” made her feel there was “space” for her own stories, Majok says. “People were using their full humanness—they’re singing and they’re using the capacity of their finite lives to fill it with that much life. It was extraordinary.”
Majok won a scholarship to the University of Chicago, where she studied English literature, reading Shakespeare plays. But at first, she was too shy to join the “theater kids.”
“There were so many kids who’d done theater all their lives—they’d gone to theater camp, and I was like, ‘There’s a thing called theater camp?’” Instead, she spent a lot of time in the library, and discovered the intense, poetic plays of Sarah Kane. When the university posted auditions for Kane’s one-act play “Crave,” Majok summoned the courage to try out, and got a part. From then on, she was in every university show.
“I loved it. I loved the family you create when you are part of a show—you obsess about the same things together…” she says. “They’re all going to work together to tell a story.”
Majok also started writing plays while at the University of Chicago—all autobiographical and all bad, she says. But she convinced the English department to let her write a play for her thesis.
“I told my mom I was going to be a playwright, and she says, ‘Oh, my God, please don’t do that. Can you at least be a journalist, because they have offices? That’s more stable,’” Majok says. “She was just concerned for my safety.” Majok did try a little journalism—interning at Newcity while at college. But she confesses, “I was horrible at my job, because I kept writing plays.”
Plays and a Pulitzer
Majok’s plays concern what she knows—the lives of immigrants and other underrepresented communities, particularly women. Gritty, unsentimental and often politically engaged, they are filled with dark humor, and experiment with time and structure.
Majok’s 2015 breakthrough play, “Ironbound,” is the story of a Polish immigrant living in New Jersey, working as a house cleaner and factory worker. It first appeared as a workshop production at Steppenwolf, before going onto the Women’s Voices Theatre Festival in Maryland and then an Off-Broadway run. Nelson Pressley of the Washington Post praised it as “harsh and wonderful.”
“Ironbound” is Justyna’s story, but Majok changed her mother’s personality for the Darja character, so she wouldn’t feel exposed. “It also let me wear a mask,” Majok says. “I’m not trying to do a docudrama. By wearing a mask and making things up, I’m trying to get to something more truthful.”
Majok’s next play, “Cost of Living,” which looks at two relationships between disabled and abled persons, won the Pulitzer. Asked how that felt, Majok gives a big smile. “I highly recommend it. It was very nice.” At first she didn’t believe her agent, who laughed at her for almost ten minutes.
The Pulitzer didn’t change things much, Majok says. While certain doors that she’d been pushing on became “slightly more ajar,” she thought that winning the award would mean more productions for the play that won. It hasn’t, and Majok suspects that this is because she requests that disabled actors be cast in the roles of the disabled characters—even if they don’t have the same disabilities as the characters. “I just want them to be part of the community and represent the community authentically,” says Majok. She doesn’t always hear back from theaters after she states her terms.
“’Ironbound’ has had more productions than ‘Cost of Living’ has,” says Majok. “That’s tough. It’s a complicated situation, because there’s so little money. Theaters are shutting down left and right. I can understand why they might be reticent to make these changes that mean taking a risk. At the same time, I don’t want to bend in terms of what I made. I think there should be an open door for people from all sorts of experiences to tell their stories, my stories.”
Her 2018 play, “Queens” follows two generations of documented and undocumented women who live together in a basement apartment, trying to support each other. Critic Naveen Kumar of Towleroad praised the drama’s “bold and ambitious sprawl, traversing time and place to plunge the depths of immigrant experience.”
Majok’s latest play, “Sanctuary City,” brings to life a pair of teenage immigrants, one naturalized and the other undocumented. It’s set in Newark during the early 2000s around the time when the DREAM Act was proposed.
Patrick Zakem, Steppenwolf’s creative producer, says that “Sanctuary City” is a “timely look at the way our personal relationships are shaped by external forces of law and politics.”
“Martyna’s fragmented form and rich text provide incredible opportunities for actors—a must at Steppenwolf,” Zakem says. “And we’re excited to produce a play that can foster intergenerational conversations around identity, immigration, home and love.”
Majok expresses distress over the “selective amnesia” that many immigrants and children of immigrants can develop about the difficulties of being new to this country—who then vote for Donald Trump and despise new arrivals.
“When parents of my friends were voting for Trump, I wondered if there was this feeling that well, I made it in, and now I’m going to pull the bridge up,” says Majok. “I can’t share my resources—it’s all limited. But why not ease the burden if you know the difficulties?”
Majok says that immigrants who have been here a long time often talk about the problems they had. But she notes that it’s harder now, and immigrants who made it should have more empathy for those who are still struggling.
“People don’t take into account the additional restrictions that certain communities have now, because of the Patriot Act, because of 9/11, because of Trump’s rhetoric, because of the violence, the scapegoating and the hate crimes,” says Majok.
“Sanctuary City” is really a play about friendship, she says, which also happens to be about immigration policy, which affects their friendship in an intense way. “It tries to show an impossible situation between friends and lovers because of a policy that made their lives have more obstacles than other people’s lives,” Majok says. “Why don’t we sit with these people—they’re high-school kids, and we know what high school was like. Aren’t we all the same?”
Back to Poland
Majok’s own immigrant mother’s difficulties were made worse by domestic violence, and she came up with a plan to protect herself and her two daughters.
“She had been secretly trying to make herself as safe as possible,” Majok says of her mother. “Mom was crafty. One day she told me and my sister we weren’t going to school that day, we were going to say we were sick and we were going to pack up all our stuff and we were moving, and also, I’m a citizen, and we’re leaving him… We moved across town, and because of the restraining order he couldn’t come near us. She moved us very near a police station, a block away.”
When Majok was in college, she had a chance to go back to Poland—and took a long, wonderful road trip with her maternal grandfather all around the country. and into Vienna, and the Czech Republic. She has been back about ten times. “I have a huge family in Poland, but I rarely get to see them,” Majok says. Her mother, stepsister, and stepsister’s family remain in the United States, and she is close to them. “There was a moment when I realized a few years ago that I don’t have any other blood in this country—it’s my mom and my sister and that’s it. I better cherish those relationships.”
“Ironbound” has been produced by the National Theatre in Warsaw, but it hasn’t been done yet in Chicago, other than that early workshop production. She wishes someone would do it—after all, the character Darja talks about wanting to come here.
Majok says that when writing about the immigrant experience, she feels a responsibility not to perpetuate stereotypes. “Because when you’re writing you’re in conversation with every other representation of that thing that existed prior to you writing. That’s what you inherit as a writer,” Majok says. “If you write about the Polish experience, for example, you’re contributing to it, or you’re subverting it… It’s never just characters.”
Majok appreciates immigrant fiction, naming authors like Chicagoan Stuart Dybek, Junot Diaz and Jhumpa Lahiri. She wishes she had been exposed to more immigrant writing in school. “You feel like you exist, your life has meaning, it’s epic, it’s worth attention.”
Her own writing is always based on people she knows. “I take a bit of that person, a bit of that person—they feel more alive to me that way. This person’s humor, that person’s life circumstances, and that person’s profession, and see where they meet each other,” says Majok. She notes that there’s a part of the writing process that involves performing your characters. “We’re like crazy people, talking to people that are just in our brains,” she says. “When I write a scene about someone that’s angry, I’m just exhausted.”
Like many serious writers, Majok says she hates writing. Finding “flow,” those times when things move swiftly and easily, is rare. She has a shirt with the phrase: “I hate writing, I love having written,” often and incorrectly attributed to Dorothy Parker. But she does love rewriting—when she works with a theater company on the play and figures out what needs to be improved.
“My favorite place is not doing the actual writing, which I hate so much, but being in a room with actors and directors and other collaborators,” Majok says. “When I write a play, it’s not as true as it could be in the first draft. It’s an attempt at something… Then I share it with these collaborators, who are giving me ideas that inspire more writing. I just love that. It’s such an alive exchange. I go through the agony of writing to get there.”
Majok says she loves actors, and finds it astonishing that they’re donating their brains to something she made.
“I’m so aware of our mortality in the theater… I’m so aware that it’s a time-based thing—every night, someone takes a bit of their lives to tell the same story to other people who take a bit of their lives to receive that story,” says Majok. “And at the end, we’re a little closer to death, but hopefully richer for it.”
The Great Gatsby
Majok is working on a musical version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby,” with Florence Welch (of the band Florence and the Machine) and the pianist Thomas Bartlett. Why was she drawn to Gatsby, who’s rich and not an immigrant?
“It’s one of the most moving books about being an American I’ve ever read,” says Majok. “It is so full of longing for this really barbed but beautiful duality of the American dream.”
Majok recalls Fitzgerald’s quote from “The Crack-Up”: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”
Majok says there’s an American mentality that it is possible to achieve greatness. That’sand you should absolutely try, however, it has often led to destruction and bloodshed. “The ambition can be so endless, of not being enough. We’re driven to achieve these things, and it’s never enough.”
Majok says she fell in love with Gatsby as the ultimate working-class character. “He comes from nothing, so I aligned myself with him. If I just get this one thing, the love of this woman, it will be enough, and it’s never enough. He feels so not enough that he has to recreate himself entirely, which is so American, so immigrant.”
She admits that while she’s not struggling the same way she did as a kid, and she’s safer than she’s ever been, she wants more all the time. “Because I feel like I have to make it worth all the work of my mother’s broken body with the life I’m leading,” says Majok. “There are opportunities and I feel I have to make something out of them. She’s not asking for me to buy her a house, but I feel I have to buy her a house. That feels like the unspoken immigrant kid’s imperative. That’s American. There’s this feeling, you can be great, why not try? Why not try a little harder?”
Fitzgerald wrote “The Great Gatsby” just a few years after a global war and pandemic that wiped out about seventy million people. “And then I think I understand the parties, I understand the gin, I understand this feral hunger to make meaning out of devastation,” says Majok. “It was really meaningful to be working on that during the [recent] pandemic. It’s rarely talked about, that that’s where they’re coming from.”
Majok says she relates to the character Myrtle Wilson, who wanted so desperately to break out of her circumstances. “The working-class characters experienced the worst [of the war and pandemic],” Majok says. “They want to make meaning out of the destruction they experienced. They want to live in this idea of what America has to offer, if you just reach.”
“The Great Gatsby” musical is scheduled to open at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge this coming spring, then—Majok hopes—to Broadway. A 2022 Broadway performance of “Cost of Living” garnered five Tony nominations.
Recalling her mother’s worry that writing plays wasn’t “safe,” Majok says she thinks she’s actually safest being an artist. “I tried not to be and that kills me inside. Actually, for me, that’s the safer thing. It may not be financially, but for my soul, it is.”
“Sanctuary City” plays at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 North Halsted, September 14-November 18.