Martyna Majok, AB’07

Martyna Majok, AB’07. (Photography by Jason Smith)

Hard laughter

Martyna Majok’s acclaimed new play finds light in the dark.

On its face, Martyna Majok’s (AB’07) Ironbound doesn’t seem to offer much to laugh at—the play follows Darja, a Polish immigrant living in New Jersey, through 22 years of personal and economic hardship. The character is based (in circumstances, at least) on Majok’s mother. But at its first reading, “people laughed,” she says. “I trusted that.”

That an audience could relate to flinty, caustic Darja enough to find the bleak comedy in her story was encouraging: “Laughter means they’re listening, that they want to be there, that they’re finding something honest in the material.”

After well-received premieres in Chicago and Bethesda, Maryland, Ironbound opened off-Broadway in March. “Ms. Majok’s perceptive drama, with its bone-dry humor and vivid characters, illustrates how vulnerable people like Darja are,” Charles Isherwood wrote in the New York Times.

For Majok, the play’s success, along with several new commissions and a one-year fellowship from the Playwrights of New York (PoNY), is a welcome breakthrough. Once she committed herself to playwriting, “that was sort of it for me. Which meant bumps along the way,” she says. “But I was gonna find a way to make this happen.” (Majok’s comments have been edited and condensed.)

What were your goals with Ironbound?

I asked myself, during a difficult year, if I never wrote another play again, what would I regret not having said? That became Ironbound. And when I first started thinking about the play, I thought, “Lemme make this thing as produce-able as possible, ’cause no theater’s gonna want to present a play about a poor Polish immigrant woman living in working-class Jersey.” I made it something you could stage for $75 in a basement somewhere. I would not compromise the story I wanted to tell, but I would try to make it as easy as possible for an organization to want to help me tell it. The play requires four actors and a bench or a bus stop sign—but really, everything except the actors is negotiable. This limitation was actually inspiring and strangely freeing—it made me write more economically and make bolder choices.

Why is Ironbound’s humor important to you?

These characters aren’t walking around day after day bemoaning their fates. They’re aware of their circumstances, sure, but they’re making things happen, they’re working to change them. They have no use for bullshit, no time for it. These characters’ humor is in their ability to call it like it is. They are flawed but aware. They are smart. The last thing I want is for an audience to feel like they’ve watched a story with no hope. Or no bite.

What’s your role in the rehearsal process?

I listen to the actors, where I see them struggling to get to an honest place in their acting. Those are the places I know I need to work on in the script.

What do you hope people take away from Ironbound, and your work more generally?

For those who have also grown up with these characters, or who are these characters, I hope they will feel seen. I hope they’ll feel that their stories—and their lives—are valued. For those that might not otherwise meet these characters outside of a theater—or that might not talk to them—I hope they feel connected. That they look at their cab drivers or cleaning ladies, at the other people on the subway or waiting for the bus, a little differently, with a little more complexity.

What inspires you?

The people I grew up with—working-class men and women. Family stories. And family mysteries. NJ Transit, the MTA, the CTA. Feeling either very familiar or very foreign. The way people speak, the accidental poetry and profundity that comes from being clear-eyed about your life—about life in general. The way people speak who had to learn English later. My mother. Jersey. Chicago. Poland. New York.

Do you feel any less anxious about pursuing a career in theater?

Two years ago, my husband and I were sleeping in a bathtub—the only place the bedbugs in our Harlem sublet couldn’t get to. We lived in 13 apartments in one year because we couldn’t afford a security deposit in New York City. Neither of us come from money and both of us took giant risks becoming theater artists. Before I got the phone call about the PoNY Fellowship, we weren’t sure if we could continue pursuing a life in the theater. This year has been a major blessing—it’s saved our dreams and kept us going. I’m anxious about this year ending. But it’s truly helped me so much and, yes, eased my mind a lot more. I think the hustle is forever. I suspect that’s the American way.