Martyna Majok's 'Price of Residing,' in This Economic system? – American Theatre


Martyna Majok.

Ten years in the past Martyna Majok was sleeping in a bath. She had simply graduated from Yale College of Drama and, not having any cash to place down for a safety deposit on an condo, the younger playwright was couch-surfing and subletting whereas working at bars to make ends meet. One condo she stayed at in Harlem had bedbugs. Which is how Majok discovered herself retreating to the lavatory, the one place freed from the pests.

Generally she would take the practice to her mother’s place in New Jersey “and crash there,” Majok recalled just lately. But when she “missed the NJ Transit practice out to Jersey as a result of I used to be working on the bar, I used to be like, ‘Effectively, I suppose it’s again to the fucking bathtub.’” That first yr in NYC, Majok lived in 13 totally different flats. Now, with a ways from that point, Majok can look again with a sure diploma of humor, although she will nonetheless vividly keep in mind the quarter-sized welts of bedbug bites on her physique.

“From the tub to Broadway, right here we go!” Majok exclaimed with amusing earlier than including, extra quietly, as if it simply hit her how far she’s are available in a decade, “Oh shit….” 

It’s an apt response, contemplating Majok’s humble origins and the heights she has reached since. Majok’s play Price of Residing, which received her the Pulitzer Prize in 2018, is currently on Broadway at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through Oct. 30. (Coincidentally, it additionally has a pivotal scene that includes a bath.)

Price of Residing isn’t what you’d name typical Broadway fare. It’s a decent four-hander about two characters who’ve disabilities and the individuals who take care of them, impressed partly by Majok’s expertise as a caretaker for 2 males with disabilities (the playwright herself is just not disabled). For actor Katy Sullivan—who has been with the play since its world premiere in 2016 at Williamstown Theatre Pageant—Price of Residing is a very particular piece due to its empathetic portrayal of what it’s wish to reside with a incapacity and to rely on others. In Price of Residing, Sullivan portrays a girl named Ani, left a quadriplegic after an accident. In actual life, Sullivan was born with out legs and is a Paralympian.

What’s particular to Sullivan about Ani, she advised me, was that the character “is a three-dimensional lady with flaws, and a humorousness and a wit, however she occurs to be coming from this place of residing her life with a incapacity. We’re not there but as a tradition with telling genuine tales from the attitude of residing your life this manner. People with disabilities are the biggest minority on this nation, and we’re the least represented within the leisure trade.” Up to now, Sullivan has performed Ani in 4 productions of Price of Residing, together with Off-Broadway, on the West Finish, and in Los Angeles. Broadway shall be her fifth time with the character.

However the title Price of Residing doesn’t simply discuss with the monetary burden of getting a caretaker as a part of your life. Additionally it is concerning the easy indisputable fact that making an attempt to make ends meet on this economic system is a relentless problem, incapacity or no. One other character in Price of Residing, Jess, is a Princeton graduate who has discovered herself working at bars and sleeping in her automotive, as a result of even an Ivy League schooling isn’t a assured escape from poverty.

In Majok’s performs, residing itself is an exhausting array of logistics. Her breakout play Ironbound was a few poor Polish immigrant, Darja, ready at a bus cease in New Jersey, whose central dilemma is heartbreakingly easy: determining the place she is going to sleep for the night time. Majok’s most up-to-date play, Sanctuary Metropolis, which had a well-received run final fall at New York Theatre Workshop and could have a number of productions across the nation within the coming season, is about an undocumented immigrant about to marry his childhood buddy for a Inexperienced Card. The play focuses on the 2 of them getting ready for the wedding interview with immigration authorities, as the 2 characters repeat the questions (“When did you meet?” “What did the 2 of you may have in frequent?”) over and over.

Gregg Mozgala, Jo Bonney, and Martyna Majok in rehearsal for “Price of Residing.”

Director Jo Bonney first learn Price of Residing when her agent despatched her the script because the play was being developed at Williamstown. On the time, Bonney had deliberate on happening a piece break, however her agent persuaded her to learn Majok’s play.

“Once I first met her, she was an early-career playwright and solely had one play earlier than [Ironbound]. However already I simply felt that there was a lot maturity in her work and specificity to her voice,” Bonney recalled. Bonney didn’t take that break, and as a substitute has labored on Price of Residing since 2015.

“What I like about Martyna’s work is she seems to be at characters on the margins, however in addition they will not be indulgent,” enthused Bonney. “They don’t really feel sorry for themselves; they cope with no matter life throws at them.” The way in which that Majok’s characters give their lives which means, she stated, isn’t by way of the attainment of issues or reaching targets. It comes by way of their relationships with different folks, and the easy fantastic thing about these interactions is what propels Majok’s performs.

“It’s so highly effective, that human want to maneuver ahead and make contact,” stated Bonney. “Issues like a pandemic, issues like well being care or illness or demise—all of the little issues in life, they’ll simply knock you down and go away you alone.” Majok’s work, Bonney summed up, asks the questions: “How do you attain out and discover your approach out of that? How are you going to discover different folks that will help you out of that?” 

Majok doesn’t have a incapacity, however she’s been in a position to painting these characters, and different marginalized characters, with each empathy and complexity, which stands out in a tradition wherein struggling is sentimentalized and the poor are blamed for their very own misfortunes. Sullivan believes that Majok’s personal lived expertise as an individual on the margins permits her to jot down characters who’re challenged however not outlined by their circumstances.

“She’s lived quite a lot of life,” stated Sullivan, borrowing a quote from Price of Residing. “She’s gone by way of some heavy stuff, and I feel that’s the place her unimaginable stage of empathy comes from. Persons are sophisticated and flawed. And I feel she has a very unimaginable knack for capturing the complexity of the human situation.”

Katy Sullivan and Wendell Pierce in Martyna Majok’s “Price of Residing” at Williamstown Theatre Pageant. (Picture by Daniel Rader)

There’s a vivid picture that repeats itself in Majok’s thoughts, and she or he’s unsure if it’s a dream or a reminiscence. “I keep in mind waking up with ash in my mouth,” she stated. As a toddler, she additionally had recurring goals of her enamel falling out. Majok was born in Bytom, a metropolis in southern Poland. When she was 2 years outdated, the household went tenting close to the Ukrainian border—the identical week the Chernobyl energy plant exploded, sending a radiation cloud out over by way of Japanese Europe.

“One of many explanation why we got here to the U.S. was once I was two and a half, my child enamel turned black and disintegrated,” recalled Majok. When her enamel grew again, they had been translucent, and she or he was continuously getting infections. Majok’s mom, a nurse, put two and two collectively. “My mother was like, it may need been our proximity to Chernobyl.”

The household settled in New Jersey, the place her mother obtained work as a home cleaner. Majok by no means met her organic father, however she remembered that her stepfather was so violent that she would usually conceal in her room. “I might lock myself in my room and write for fucking hours,” she stated. At one level, she remembered seeing her stepfather maintain a gun to her mom’s head. 

However right here’s a factor about the best way Majok tells tales, in her performs and in actual life. She’s going to all the time break up the depth with moments of humor (she describes her character as “agro-sassy”). In Ironbound, which was primarily based on her mom’s life, Darja is sleeping exterior, with seen bruises, ostensibly from an abusive lover. A teenage boy notices her bruises and feedback, “Hear, yer not tryin’ to sleep out right here tonight, are you? Cuz I’ma let you know proper now that ain’t the dopest of ideas.”

As she advised me the harrowing particulars of her childhood, Majok chuckled wryly and quipped, “You’ll discover in my performs, there aren’t any good dads!” Throughout Majok’s sophomore yr of highschool, her mom advised her to pack her issues; they had been leaving instantly. In secret, her mom had lined up a plan: She’s been finding out for her naturalization examination, had efficiently received citizenship, and had taken out a restraining order in opposition to Majok’s stepfather.

Gregg Mozgala and Kara Younger in “Price of Residing” on Broadway. (Picture by Julieta Cervantes)

It wasn’t till years later, whereas an undergrad on the College of Chicago, that Majok took a breath to really course of all the pieces that had occurred in her childhood and teenage years. That was when she began writing performs. She started writing a model of her mom’s story that will finally morph into Ironbound.

“I began writing from conduct that I skilled or witnessed, and type of making an attempt to go backwards and have the ability to reside within the expertise of an individual who might have been an abuser, to attempt to occupy everybody’s consciousnesses,” Majok stated. It wasn’t an alternative choice to remedy, essentially, but it surely did assist make clear in her thoughts what had occurred and why, and what separated her from her classmates. “I discovered that deeply tough and likewise actually good, and I stored doing it.”

Even nowadays, Majok normally writes from a spot of instinct, she stated. She doesn’t got down to write about matters. As an alternative, a picture will pop into her thoughts, or a reminiscence, or a query. Within the means of writing totally different scenes she hopes will finally cohere, Majok will uncover what the play is about.

“I do really feel like I draw from private truths. They’re by no means, like, journalistic, ‘That is what occurred,’” she defined. “However emotional, private truths—issues that I’ve skilled and have questions on.” 

Price of Residing took a yr to develop into a play. It started as a monologue about grief after Majok misplaced an in depth member of the family in Poland and couldn’t go to the funeral as a result of she had no cash. The monologue was a few man grieving his lifeless spouse. Majok then wrote one other scene between a person and a girl wherein the lady had been injured. She quickly realized that the 2 scenes had been linked, and that the play must return in time from the monologue the place the person’s spouse was lifeless to the dialogue scene the place she was nonetheless alive. Later, Majok wrote a scene between a person with cerebral palsy and his caretaker.

“In accordance with my unconscious, it was, okay, cool, I’m gonna comply with that,” Majok stated, now talking shortly, having her personal stream-of-consciousness monologue about her personal course of. “So I had the 4 characters, and I used to be simply making an attempt to determine how they had been talking to one another.”

Whereas Price of Residing took a while to wrangle right into a play, she wrote Sanctuary Metropolis with lightning velocity within the span of three days. She was engaged on one other play, Queens, about new immigrants residing in a basement condo in Queens (which premiered at Lincoln Center Theater in 2018), when someday a brand new character, an undocumented immigrant, abruptly walked into the image.

“I couldn’t sleep and ended up excited about sure those that I grew up with who had been undocumented,” she stated. “I obtained up at 3 within the morning and began writing issues down and realized, I feel I’m writing the play,” recalled Majok. However the scene she was writing didn’t slot in Queens, so it will definitely grew to become Sanctuary Metropolis, which Majok wrote over three days on a $50 sofa that she purchased off Craigslist.

Sharlene Cruz and Jasai Chase-Owens in “Sanctuary Metropolis.” (Picture by Joan Marcus)

Regardless of the accolades she’s obtained up to now for her writing, she advised me that writing itself is her least favourite a part of the theatremaking course of. “I fucking hate writing. I hate it so a lot. I discover it agonizing,” she stated emphatically. Writing is her approach of unlocking the questions she at present has “about myself, the world, existence, no matter.” It’s within the rehearsal room—the place she loves “greater than another place on the planet”—that Majok finds her solutions, by way of enter from different folks and thru rewrites. That collaborative course of makes all of it worthwhile. As she put it, “That act of writing makes me really feel like a fuller model of myself on the finish of it, just like the play finally ends up being smarter than I ever was earlier than I began writing it.”

It additionally implies that within the room, Majok has no qualms about altering her script primarily based on suggestions. For instance, in Price of Residing, at one level the character Ani has misplaced mobility in her left hand, and her husband Eddie picks up her limp left hand and hits himself with it. In rehearsals, Sullivan advised her scene associate that when he put her hand again onto the arm of the wheelchair, he wanted to unfold her palm and fingers out to encourage circulation “or I’ll lose these too.” Majok picked up on that alternate, and now it’s within the play, a telling element of what it’s really wish to not have the ability to use your limbs.

It’s in capturing the verisimilitude to how actual folks speak, whereas nonetheless retaining the musicality of theatrical speech, that offers Majok’s writing a lived-in however shocking high quality. It’s why a line like, “The shit that occurs is to not be understood,” may be each relatable and achingly poetic, particularly when spoken by an unemployed truck driver—the kind of character you won’t anticipate to be able to magnificence however who, as Majok hears him, may be simply as eloquent because the well-off characters that populate most performs.

“Her writing is extremely difficult for actors as a result of that’s how folks really speak,” Sullivan says. “The place they begin a line and so they cease it, and so they say ‘You already know’ loads. It may be difficult to type of get her language into your physique, however as soon as it’s there, it’s like studying music.”

Morgan Spector and Marin Eire in “Ironbound,” at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in a coproduction with WP Theater. (Picture by Sandra Coudert)

When Majok talks about being poor, she doesn’t discuss it within the hipster’s approach, as if it had been a selected part she went by way of to show her authenticity. When Majok talks about being a literal ravenous artist, it’s gritty, not romantic. The truth is, it wasn’t till just lately that Majok even spent cash on herself, shopping for a brand new sofa at full worth—one thing that was unimaginable to her 10 years in the past.

“You’ve started working without cost for therefore lengthy to jot down these items,” Majok defined, visibly annoyed. “And also you hope any individual responds to them. And for those who fail, for those who fuck up, for those who get a nasty evaluation, who’s gonna pay your hire? Who’s going to present you one other alternative to maintain on making trip of the very finite hours of the day if you’re lucid to have the ability to do the work together with your physique to maintain your life alive, after which additionally make stuff?”

In her first few years in New York, exhausted from working at a bar, Majok solely had vitality to jot down quick scenes and quick performs. In her spare time, she would community, assembly as many theatre folks as she might whereas making use of for fellowships. She was additionally shameless in telling folks to appoint her for alternatives, such because the PoNY Fellowship from the Playwrights of New York—which she landed, and which gave her housing, a month-to-month stipend for residing bills for a yr, and medical health insurance for a yr. In different phrases, the PoNY obtained Majok out of the tub.

“I had no plan B, so I used to be like, I’ve to determine this out and be relentless, to make this factor I need occur,” Majok stated. “Seven folks nominated me for this chance, ’trigger they had been like, ‘She has no place to reside. She’s a large number. Assist her out.’” Majok took that 2015 PoNY fellowship as an indication to maintain going. That very same yr, Ironbound leapt out of the gate with productions in Washington, D.C., and Off-Broadway (it was additionally published in this magazine). Then got here Price of Residing, Queens, Sanctuary Metropolis. And now Broadway.

Whilst she reaches this profession peak, Majok stays, in her personal phrases, relentless. She nonetheless has questions and unfulfilled ambitions. She needs to purchase a home for her mother. She needs extra lower-income folks, the folks she grew up with, to have the ability to entry the theatre. Majok is at present making an attempt to develop Sanctuary Metropolis right into a tv collection, and she or he just lately took a gig writing the guide for a Nice Gatsby musical, with music by Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine. (Welch approached Majok after seeing Sanctuary Metropolis, reportedly attracted by the aura of craving that permeated the play.)

The triumph of getting Price of Residing to Broadway isn’t primarily concerning the monetary return, although. She stated she has some thought why, till MTC picked up Price of Residing for Broadway, it was getting fewer U.S. productions than Ironbound and Sanctuary Metropolis, even after successful the Pulitzer: It was concerning the play’s disabled actors. She’s had creative administrators ask her if they’ll solid non-disabled actors within the play’s disabled roles, regardless of the script explicitly instructing producers to solid disabled actors, and regardless of her offering a listing of disabled actors they may audition.

This final level frustrates Majok a lot that she referred to as me after our preliminary hours-long dialog to speak extra about it. To her, if the American theatre is critical about wanting to alter for the higher, “It’s a bunch effort, together with programming and likewise folks coming to the present.” However up to now producers “simply need permission to do what they’ve all the time performed.”

Her present wrestle with theatre, she stated, is within the pressure between the trade’s want to place tales about marginalized folks onstage and their reluctance to do sufficient to really embrace these communities, particularly within the viewers.

“The perfect expertise I had was my mom and a standing ovation for Ironbound, and me sitting subsequent to her, and her feeling seen by the viewers,” stated Majok. 

Certainly, listening to audiences react to her performs on this approach has introduced a way of validation for Majok. It tells her that the tales of the folks she grew up round, who had nothing however who made a life anyway, matter too.

“In writing concerning the specificity of a sure expertise, it has introduced folks from very totally different views into understanding the universality of it,” stated Majok, as she pensively gazed out a window into the rain. “And that may be cool, to have an viewers member be like, ‘Oh, I didn’t assume that I used to be going to connect with this in any respect. However we’re extra alike than we’re totally different.’”

Diep Tran (she/her) is a former senior editor of this journal. Observe her on Twitter @DiepThought.

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