Dominique Morisseau and Martyna Majok met at the Lark in New York City when Majok’s play Ironbound and Morisseau’s play Skeleton Crew were being read aloud for the first time. Both pieces feature strong female characters and center on work in factories. The playwrights admired each other’s work and have been in touch ever since.
The full playscript of Ironbound can be found in the December 2016 issue of American Theatre.
Dominique Morisseau: We instantly connected over the loss of factories, and the dirt under the nails of the working class. Can you talk about what your attraction is to that world and to those folks?
Martyna Majok: Ironbound was based on my mother’s experiences in America. She and I came to North Jersey from Poland when I was young. We lived in the Newark area, surrounded by factories. Most of the folks living in my neighborhood were also recent immigrants, from all over, also working in factories or in construction or cleaning houses. My mother cleaned houses—she still cleans houses. She worked in a paper factory, a cookie factory, and a book-lining factory in Jersey City, and she also worked as a caregiver for the elderly.
I was pulled to write Ironbound the way I did, with a working-class immigrant woman as an intelligent and capable but flawed core of a story, because centerstage wasn’t afforded these types of characters in the stories I had access to growing up—in the latchkey-kid TV that I watched. They were a joke. Their English was a punch line. Or they were some magical janitor that came in for a scene to offer sage advice to the main character about how it’s “best to live a simple life” or some shit. It’s about who’s telling the story and who’s seen as the “other.” When I first started writing plays, they were from that perspective, but I think people felt a little bit strange in them.
When I first took a playwriting workshop in college, I’d bring in plays about my neighborhood back in Jersey that were written in dialect. I didn’t even think of them as “written in dialect”—it was just the way people spoke. People called them “accent plays,” like, “Here’s another accent play from Martyna.” It was definitely, like, an eye-opener about class, you know? I was a scholarship kid and this was a new world to me. People didn’t respond to the humor I was attempting—the characters’ circumstances felt too dark—and the language often sounded strange in the other people’s mouths.
That’s so deep to me; you’re talking about how people perceive immigrants. Do you feel the burden of upholding their reputation? I kind of hate when people ask me this, as if it’s some kind of burden to be black and a woman and write about it. But it can also kind of be burdensome to try to carry an entire community on your back, especially when they’ve been marginalized.
When I’m writing working-class folks from Jersey, or immigrants—particularly Eastern European immigrant women—that’s usually when I can get into an actual flow. That’s probably the most pleasurable that writing gets for me. I usually hate writing. It’s agony for me.
I hate it. [Laughs] I love being in the room with people, collaborating, deepening a play. I don’t love being by myself with my computer, digging up all my stuff and trying to fashion it into some kind of arc. When I started writing Ironbound, I assumed nobody would give a fuck, to be honest. I thought, “Who’s gonna care about a poor Polish immigrant?” So it didn’t feel like I had a mission. And I was also at a place where I was wondering whether or not to keep going with playwriting. So I asked myself, if I stopped right now, what would I regret not having said? I had to write a play for the end of my [National New Play Network] residency, so what you heard at the Lark was me writing for five days straight in a tiny room in Jersey. I figured I should make this a play that I could stage for $75 in a basement myself, if I had to—’cause I figured I’d have to! In that moment, it didn’t feel like, “I have to speak for my people.” It was more, “Nobody is going to care about this,” so I’d better make it the clearest, most cost-conscious, most generous version of this story that I’m capable of creating.
Your play also jumps time. How did you master that? Did it come to you when you were writing it, or did you have to map out your structure?
I wanted to show Darja’s relation to her dreams over time. She has a plan for her life, the best of intentions—we see that spark and that hope in her original dream in the ’90s —and then we check in on her 10, 20 years later, and her life has become something very different. We’re always making the best decision we think we can make in the moment. We only find out later how that decision works out. I wanted to show the different sides of this one particular woman’s life and spirit. She has agency over her choices and she definitely fucks shit up a few times, but there are also circumstances that strongly affect her that are just beyond her control. Like the factory. I used the factory as an anchor of time—because I’d seen what happened with these factories in Jersey over 20 years—as a reflection of what was happening economically. In the ’90s, the factories were full and running; in the 2000s, they were starting to shut down and outsource; in 2014, they’re gone. They’re ghosts. That factory I was writing about is now just rubble.
Did your play teach you something about what it is that you didn’t know when you were first writing it?
In early readings, audiences would ask me what Darja’s dream is. I’d say security. Survival. And I still think that’s true. But there’s more. I think Darja makes a choice in that early scene with Maks to commit her life fully to something that belongs to her, to something that can’t be taken away from her. And she’s gonna work to the bone to ensure its success, its safety, and its happiness. Toward the end of the play, Darja tells Tommy that there can only be one mother for her son—that she occupies a single important position in his life—and that he can’t throw that away. But he sort of has been doing just that for most of her life, as have many of the other men. The choices she’s made for her son have actually ended up hurting her.
I’ve seen my mother go through similar things. Choosing practical security over intangible things like love and pride. It’s a trade I’ve watched her quietly make. In my lowest moments, so have I. It usually ended badly for both of us. It’s this paradox that in trying to prevent her family’s suffering by being with these men, it ended up hurting us more. I wonder sometimes about what my life might have been like had I never left Poland. I wonder about who this other version of myself would’ve been had I stayed. I hope it’ll turn out to be worth it—that I make something of value, something even a fraction worth the sacrifices of my family and the time lost.
That’s all gorgeously deep. In Ironbound, you see your mother and she’s a lot of the story and a lot of Darja’s inspiration. For me, in Skeleton Crew that’s my aunt. Of course, my aunt will never see herself.
Oh yeah, my mother doesn’t see herself either. I warned her in Chicago [at the Steppenwolf workshop production], “Just so you know, I took a few things from your life.” And she looked at me as the lights were going down with that face like, “I drove here from Jersey. You better not have taken some shit from my life.” She assured me after the show that that wasn’t her. But now, she’s seen it, like, three times in New York. Somebody was sitting next to her at Rattlestick—a complete stranger—and she turned to him and said, “That’s me.” She’s, like, taken it on now. Did your aunt see Skeleton Crew?
No, my aunt didn’t see it. She wouldn’t think it was her either. But when the audience says, “God, I freaking love Darja,” or “I love Faye,” that’ll turn you. You don’t realize how much the little everyday stuff that you do, your route to survival is, like, deeply inspirational and heroic.
I hope so. I hope too that she can see it’s out of love, fascination, and gratitude that Darja exists. The first time my mother heard a play of mine was my last year of college, and I think she felt betrayed by it. There was a time when we were undocumented, living with domestic violence, and the one time I wrote something for elementary school about what was going on at home, I got sent to the nurse’s office. When I told my mother, she became terrified that we’d be separated, that someone might take me and my younger sister away from her. So I went back to school and told them I made it up. I continued to write—but I called it fiction. By the time my mother saw my first play, she was naturalized and free from that abusive marriage, but I think it still was very deep in her.
Then, on opening night at Round House [in Bethesda, Md.], 300 people gave Ironbound a standing ovation. It was the best moment of my career, because next to me was this woman who, for most of her adult life, was considered invisible. Who’d just been trying to survive as best she could. Who maybe didn’t think her contribution was important. But here were all these people standing, witnessing, moved. And I think in her heart she knew she was valued. I think she might even be cocky about it now.