Martyna Majok couldn’t sleep. She was in the midst of writing Queens, a play about a group of immigrant women living in the New York City outer borough. But her mind was banging against the walls, trying to work out that play, which “opened the door to these other characters and this story that then began kicking around in my mind.” She got out of bed at 3AM and feverishly began to write a different play. Three days later, she had Sanctuary City.
Now, Majok is in rehearsals for its July 13 reading as part of Vassar College & New York Stage and Film’s Powerhouse Theater season. The play follows two teenagers, one recently naturalized and the other undocumented. They are each other’s dearest person in the world, and as they near high school graduation, they hatch a plan: they will marry in order for the undocumented to stay in the country and pursue an education, specifically the kind of education that requires application for federal financial aid.
Set post-9/11 but pre-DACA, Sanctuary City investigates the challenges (predictable and unexpected) of this lifelong friendship and their risk. “Some of the things I'm exploring are the extent to which we help when we can, how much we are willing to care for and sacrifice for another person, and the cost of that, for both sides, particularly when coming from a world of limited means and guarantees,” Majok tells Playbill.
Here, Majok explores her newest work in detail ahead of its Powerhouse debut and its scheduled bow during New York Theatre Workshop 2019–2020 season.
Sanctuary City addresses themes of sacrifice and friendship in the context of immigration. It feels like the Venn diagram of your Cost of Living and Queens.
Martyna Majok: I was thinking of that, too, the other day. It's also set in a similar world [as Cost of Living]—working class North Jersey. Maybe these are some of the questions I'll explore forever, or for a long time, in one form or variation or another. There's that great F. Scott Fitzgerald quote that goes something like, "Most writers write about the same two or three things and if they're lucky, people will continue to read them." I hope I'm lucky. ’Cause I don't seem to be done investigating them.
READ: Pulitzer Prize-Winning Cost of Living to Be Adapted Into a Musical
How has hearing your actors read around the table influenced what you’ll do with the play?
I've gotten to work with wonderful actors this week—all who are new to the play. Workshops and table work are my favorite thing in the world, getting to dig into a new play with generous, smart collaborators like the ones I'm working with right now at [Powerhouse]. I don't like writing. I just find it so incredibly difficult—but I love this. The purpose of this time for me was to ask questions—and to be asked questions—about things that may or not currently be in the play. Aspects of these characters that I may know but then realize I haven't put into the play, and what I may not have known about them.
Immigration is widely discussed and debated at this moment in time. What does this story, in particular, add to that conversation and highlight that other stories have not?
I approach these stories, these plays, from the human and the personal. The characters are often loose composites of people I know, combinations of aspects of people I grew up with. … The political is not separate from these characters' lives in America—especially, in the case of this play, regarding the absence of DACA. And Sanctuary City invites an audience into that world, with these particular characters at that particular time, which I think more and more feels like the time we're living in now. For some people, it may be a world they're unfamiliar with—or are more familiar with from news articles—and for them I hope the play contributes a more intimate and personal picture to those headlines and articles, a picture of a life. For others, it will be shorthand, an experience they know in their bones, which I hope will do for them something like what seeing the work of other playwrights writing from similar worlds and experiences does for me: to make me feel more connected, less lonely, and more alive. A tall order perhaps but that's always the hope: connecting to the world, feeling fuller in one's life, seeing and being seen. I hope it's a night of communing in the theatre—whether it's your world or very much not. Because ultimately...it is your world.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The Powerhouse Theater season brings fully produced plays, musical workshops, and readings of works-in-progress to the Vassar College campus for six weeks every summer, a developmental space free from any and all reviews that leads to new works that will play theatres around the world.