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In Ironbound a Polish immigrant yearns for a better life in New Jersey
Transportation looms large in Martyna Majok's searing new drama Ironbound, running through April 24 at the Rattlestick Playwright's Theater in a production with WP Theater. In every scene, the main character Darja—a Polish immigrant scraping at the edges of the American dream—talks about her desperate need for a car to help her chase down missing loved ones, escape her circumstances, and just get somewhere else.
Instead of moving, however, she waits. She sits at possibly the most desolate-looking bus stop in all of New Jersey, looking for a ride that never seems to arrive.
Ironically, Majok doesn't care much for cars, having never driven one herself (at least not legally, she admits.) "I never got my license because I knew I wouldn't be able to afford a car," says the 31-year-old playwright, who was born in Poland and raised in New Jersey by a mom who worked, like Darja, as a house cleaner. And just like Darja, Majok spent plenty of time riding those New Jersey buses, especially when she was writing Ironbound.
"I was living in South Jersey doing a residency, and my then-fiancé, now husband [cast member Josiah Bania] was finishing up grad school at Yale, where he was a year behind me," she recalls. "So half the week I was sleeping on a cot in the actors' housing at the theatre, and the other half I was living in his basement apartment in New Haven. My life was spent in trains and buses, passing through Newark and Harrison, the landscape of my childhood."
The grueling commute paid off, and Majok is currently having the kind of year young playwrights dream of, with several works in development, including the upcoming premiere of Cost of Living at the Williamstown Theatre Festival this summer. "This is the first year I'm supporting myself solely as a writer," she says.
But growing up in Kearney, NJ, as a latchkey kid who watched a lot of Full House, Majok had no idea such a career was even possible. She lucked into playwriting serendipitously, through her part-time high school job at an adult-literacy program. "We helped adult immigrants learn English alongside their preschool-age children," she explains. "We would do these little skits about things like going into a coffee shop and ordering lunch. I would write the scripts in Polish, Spanish, and English, and they started getting more and more elaborate, until I thought, 'Oh, this is playwriting!'"
When Majok started Ironbound, she wanted to shine a light on the experience of poor women in America and resisted making the main character Polish. But as she worked on the script, riding past all those shuttered factories from her childhood, she realized how close to her own family's experience it was. Still, she feels her character speaks to the universal experience of immigrants. "One of the most satisfying readings I ever had of the play was in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in an old church that was turned into a makeshift theatre," she says. "This young Latino kid stood up and said, 'I just saw my mom's story, and now I can have a conversation about what her life was like when she came here.' I will never forget that."
The role of Darja is a daunting one. She has every other line of dialogue (various men in her life are played by Bania, Morgan Spector, and Shiloh Fernandez), ages 20 years, and goes through an emotional and physical wringer. Amazingly, stage veteran Marin Ireland had only three weeks to learn the challenging role before previews began, stepping in after the original Darja, Gina Gershon, left the production. But Majok couldn't be more thrilled with how Ireland embodies her working-class heroine: "Marin is such a pro. She was half off-book within a few days of taking the part. From the moment we first read it around the table, we all knew she was going to be amazing."
Now that Majok has had a taste of theatrical success and financial stability, will she finally take that driver's test so she can partake in the American dream of owning her own car? Nope. "The thought of driving a car terrifies me!" she says. "I think they make you learn to drive when you're a teenager because teenagers have no concept of mortality. Now that I'm 31, my concept of mortality is very strong."
TDF Members: At press time, discount tickets were available for Ironbound. Go here to browse our current offers.
Marisa Cohen is a freelance writer in New York who can be heard singing show tunes with her two daughters at all hours of the day.
Photos by Sandra Coudert. Top photo: Shiloh Fernandez and Marin Ireland.