Ten years ago Martyna Majok was sleeping in a bathtub. She had just graduated from Yale School of Drama and, not having any money to put down for a security deposit on an apartment, the young playwright was couch-surfing and subletting while working at bars to make ends meet. One apartment she stayed at in Harlem had bedbugs. Which is how Majok found herself retreating to the bathroom, the only place free of the pests.
Sometimes she would take the train to her mom’s place in New Jersey “and crash there,” Majok recalled recently. But if she “missed the NJ Transit train out to Jersey because I was working at the bar, I was like, ‘Well, I guess it’s back to the fucking bathtub.’” That first year in NYC, Majok lived in 13 different apartments. Now, with some distance from that time, Majok can look back with a certain degree of humor, though she can still vividly remember the quarter-sized welts of bedbug bites on her body.
“From the bathtub to Broadway, here we go!” Majok exclaimed with a laugh before adding, more quietly, as if it just hit her how far she’s come in a decade, “Oh shit….”
It’s an apt reaction, considering Majok’s humble origins and the heights she has reached since. Majok’s play Cost of Living, which won her the Pulitzer Prize in 2018, is currently on Broadway at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through Oct. 30. (Coincidentally, it also has a pivotal scene featuring a bathtub.)
Cost of Living isn’t what you would call typical Broadway fare. It’s a tight four-hander about two characters who have disabilities and the people who care for them, inspired in part by Majok’s experience as a caretaker for two men with disabilities (the playwright herself is not disabled). For actor Katy Sullivan—who has been with the play since its world premiere in 2016 at Williamstown Theatre Festival—Cost of Living is a particularly special piece because of its empathetic portrayal of what it’s like to live with a disability and to depend on others. In Cost of Living, Sullivan portrays a woman named Ani, left a quadriplegic after an accident. In real life, Sullivan was born without legs and is a Paralympian.
What’s special to Sullivan about Ani, she told me, was that the character “is a three-dimensional woman with flaws, and a sense of humor and a wit, but she happens to be coming from this place of living her life with a disability. We’re not there yet as a culture with telling authentic stories from the perspective of living your life this way. Individuals with disabilities are the largest minority in this country, and we’re the least represented in the entertainment industry.” To date, Sullivan has played Ani in four productions of Cost of Living, including Off-Broadway, on the West End, and in Los Angeles. Broadway will be her fifth time with the character.
But the title Cost of Living doesn’t just refer to the financial burden of having a caretaker as part of your life. It is also about the simple fact that trying to make ends meet in this economy is a relentless challenge, disability or no. Another character in Cost of Living, Jess, is a Princeton graduate who has found herself working at bars and sleeping in her car, because even an Ivy League education isn’t a guaranteed escape from poverty.
In Majok’s plays, living itself is an exhausting array of logistics. Her breakout play Ironbound was about a poor Polish immigrant, Darja, waiting at a bus stop in New Jersey, whose central dilemma is heartbreakingly simple: figuring out where she will sleep for the night. Majok’s most recent play, Sanctuary City, which had a well-received run last fall at New York Theatre Workshop and will have several productions around the country in the coming season, is about an undocumented immigrant about to marry his childhood friend for a Green Card. The play focuses on the two of them preparing for the marriage interview with immigration authorities, as the two characters repeat the questions (“When did you meet?” “What did the two of you have in common?”) over and over again.
Director Jo Bonney first read Cost of Living when her agent sent her the script as the play was being developed at Williamstown. At the time, Bonney had planned on going on a work break, but her agent persuaded her to read Majok’s play.
“When I first met her, she was an early-career playwright and only had one play before [Ironbound]. But already I just felt that there was so much maturity in her work and specificity to her voice,” Bonney recalled. Bonney didn’t take that break, and instead has worked on Cost of Living since 2015.
“What I love about Martyna’s work is she looks at characters on the margins, but they also are not indulgent,” enthused Bonney. “They don’t feel sorry for themselves; they deal with whatever life throws at them.” The way that Majok’s characters give their lives meaning, she said, isn’t through the attainment of things or reaching goals. It comes through their relationships with other people, and the simple beauty of those interactions is what propels Majok’s plays.
“It’s so powerful, that human need to move forward and make contact,” said Bonney. “Things like a pandemic, things like health care or sickness or death—all the little things in life, they can just knock you down and leave you alone.” Majok’s work, Bonney summed up, asks the questions: “How do you reach out and find your way out of that? How can you find other people to help you out of that?”
Majok does not have a disability, but she’s been able to portray those characters, and other marginalized characters, with both empathy and complexity, which stands out in a culture in which suffering is sentimentalized and the poor are blamed for their own misfortunes. Sullivan believes that Majok’s own lived experience as a person on the margins allows her to write characters who are challenged but not defined by their circumstances.
“She’s lived a lot of life,” said Sullivan, borrowing a quote from Cost of Living. “She’s gone through some heavy stuff, and I think that’s where her incredible level of empathy comes from. People are complicated and flawed. And I think she has a really incredible knack for capturing the complexity of the human condition.”
There is a vivid image that repeats itself in Majok’s mind, and she’s not sure if it’s a dream or a memory. “I remember waking up with ash in my mouth,” she said. As a child, she also had recurring dreams of her teeth falling out. Majok was born in Bytom, a city in southern Poland. When she was 2 years old, the family went camping near the Ukrainian border—the same week the Chernobyl power plant exploded, sending a radiation cloud out over through Eastern Europe.
“One of the reasons why we came to the U.S. was when I was two and a half, my baby teeth turned black and disintegrated,” recalled Majok. When her teeth grew back, they were translucent, and she was constantly getting infections. Majok’s mother, a nurse, put two and two together. “My mom was like, it might have been our proximity to Chernobyl.”
The family settled in New Jersey, where her mom got work as a house cleaner. Majok never met her biological father, but she remembered that her stepfather was so violent that she would often hide in her room. “I would lock myself in my room and write for fucking hours,” she said. At one point, she remembered seeing her stepfather hold a gun to her mother’s head.
But here’s a thing about the way Majok tells stories, in her plays and in real life. She will always break up the intensity with moments of humor (she describes her personality as “agro-sassy”). In Ironbound, which was based on her mother’s life, Darja is sleeping outside, with visible bruises, ostensibly from an abusive lover. A teenage boy notices her bruises and comments, “Listen, yer not tryin’ to sleep out here tonight, are you? Cuz I’ma tell you right now that ain’t the dopest of thoughts.”
As she told me the harrowing details of her childhood, Majok chuckled wryly and quipped, “You will notice in my plays, there are no good dads!” During Majok’s sophomore year of high school, her mother told her to pack her things; they were leaving immediately. In secret, her mother had lined up a plan: She’s been studying for her naturalization exam, had successfully won citizenship, and had taken out a restraining order against Majok’s stepfather.
It wasn’t until years later, while an undergrad at the University of Chicago, that Majok took a breath to truly process everything that had happened in her childhood and teenage years. That was when she started writing plays. She began writing a version of her mother’s story that would eventually morph into Ironbound.
“I started writing from behavior that I experienced or witnessed, and kind of trying to go backwards and be able to live in the experience of a person who may have been an abuser, to try and occupy everyone’s consciousnesses,” Majok said. It wasn’t a substitute for therapy, necessarily, but it did help clarify in her mind what had happened and why, and what separated her from her classmates. “I found that deeply difficult and also really good, and I kept doing it.”
Even these days, Majok usually writes from a place of intuition, she said. She doesn’t set out to write about topics. Instead, an image will pop into her mind, or a memory, or a question. In the process of writing different scenes she hopes will eventually cohere, Majok will discover what the play is about.
“I do feel like I draw from personal truths. They’re never, like, journalistic, ‘This is what happened,’” she explained. “But emotional, personal truths—things that I’ve experienced and have questions about.”
Cost of Living took a year to become a play. It began as a monologue about grief after Majok lost a close family member in Poland and couldn’t go to the funeral because she had no money. The monologue was about a man grieving his dead wife. Majok then wrote another scene between a man and a woman in which the woman had been injured. She soon realized that the two scenes were connected, and that the play would have to go back in time from the monologue where the man’s wife was dead to the dialogue scene where she was still alive. Later, Majok wrote a scene between a man with cerebral palsy and his caretaker.
“According to my subconscious, it was, okay, cool, I’m gonna follow that,” Majok said, now speaking quickly, having her own stream-of-consciousness monologue about her own process. “So I had the four characters, and I was just trying to figure out how they were speaking to each other.”
While Cost of Living took some time to wrangle into a play, she wrote Sanctuary City with lightning speed in the span of three days. She was working on another play, Queens, about new immigrants living in a basement apartment in Queens (which premiered at Lincoln Center Theater in 2018), when one day a new character, an undocumented immigrant, suddenly walked into the picture.
“I couldn’t sleep and ended up thinking about certain people that I grew up with who were undocumented,” she said. “I got up at 3 in the morning and started writing things down and realized, I think I’m writing the play,” recalled Majok. But the scene she was writing didn’t fit in Queens, so it eventually became Sanctuary City, which Majok wrote over three days on a $50 couch that she bought off Craigslist.
Despite the accolades she’s received so far for her writing, she told me that writing itself is her least favorite part of the theatremaking process. “I fucking hate writing. I hate it so much. I find it agonizing,” she said emphatically. Writing is her way of unlocking the questions she currently has “about myself, the world, existence, whatever.” It is in the rehearsal room—the place she loves “more than any other place in the world”—that Majok finds her answers, through input from other people and through rewrites. That collaborative process makes it all worthwhile. As she put it, “That act of writing makes me feel like a fuller version of myself at the end of it, like the play ends up being smarter than I ever was before I started writing it.”
It also means that in the room, Majok has no qualms about changing her script based on feedback. For example, in Cost of Living, at one point the character Ani has lost mobility in her left hand, and her husband Eddie picks up her limp left hand and hits himself with it. In rehearsals, Sullivan told her scene partner that when he put her hand back onto the arm of the wheelchair, he needed to spread her palm and fingers out to encourage circulation “or I’ll lose those too.” Majok picked up on that exchange, and now it’s in the play, a telling detail of what it’s truly like to no longer be able to use your limbs.
It is in capturing the verisimilitude to how real people talk, while still retaining the musicality of theatrical speech, that gives Majok’s writing a lived-in but surprising quality. It’s why a line like, “The shit that happens is not to be understood,” can be both relatable and achingly poetic, especially when spoken by an unemployed truck driver—the sort of character you might not expect to be capable of beauty but who, as Majok hears him, can be just as eloquent as the well-off characters that populate most plays.
“Her writing is incredibly challenging for actors because that’s how people actually talk,” Sullivan says. “Where they start a line and they stop it, and they say ‘You know’ a lot. It can be challenging to kind of get her language into your body, but once it’s there, it’s like learning music.”
When Majok talks about being poor, she doesn’t talk about it in the hipster’s way, as if it had been a chosen phase she went through to prove her authenticity. When Majok talks about being a literal starving artist, it’s gritty, not romantic. In fact, it wasn’t until recently that Majok even spent money on herself, buying a new couch at full price—something that was unimaginable to her 10 years ago.
“You’ve got to work for free for so long to write these things,” Majok explained, visibly frustrated. “And you hope somebody responds to them. And if you fail, if you fuck up, if you get a bad review, who’s gonna pay your rent? Who’s going to give you another opportunity to keep on making time out of the very finite hours of the day when you’re lucid to be able to do the work with your body to keep your life alive, and then also make stuff?”
In her first few years in New York, exhausted from working at a bar, Majok only had energy to write short scenes and short plays. In her spare time, she would network, meeting as many theatre people as she could while applying for fellowships. She was also shameless in telling people to nominate her for opportunities, such as the PoNY Fellowship from the Playwrights of New York—which she landed, and which gave her housing, a monthly stipend for living expenses for a year, and health insurance for a year. In other words, the PoNY got Majok out of the bathtub.
“I had no plan B, so I was like, I have to figure this out and be relentless, to make this thing I want happen,” Majok said. “Seven people nominated me for this opportunity, ’cause they were like, ‘She has no place to live. She’s a mess. Help her out.’” Majok took that 2015 PoNY fellowship as a sign to keep going. That same year, Ironbound leapt out of the gate with productions in Washington, D.C., and Off-Broadway (it was also published in this magazine). Then came Cost of Living, Queens, Sanctuary City. And now Broadway.
Even as she reaches this career peak, Majok remains, in her own words, relentless. She still has questions and unfulfilled ambitions. She wants to buy a house for her mom. She wants more lower-income people, the people she grew up with, to be able to access the theatre. Majok is currently trying to develop Sanctuary City into a television series, and she recently took a gig writing the book for a Great Gatsby musical, with music by Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine. (Welch approached Majok after seeing Sanctuary City, reportedly attracted by the aura of yearning that permeated the play.)
The triumph of getting Cost of Living to Broadway isn’t primarily about the financial return, though. She said she has some idea why, until MTC picked up Cost of Living for Broadway, it was getting fewer U.S. productions than Ironbound and Sanctuary City, even after winning the Pulitzer: It was about the play’s disabled actors. She’s had artistic directors ask her if they can cast non-disabled actors in the play’s disabled roles, despite the script explicitly instructing producers to cast disabled actors, and despite her providing a list of disabled actors they might audition.
This last point frustrates Majok so much that she called me after our initial hours-long conversation to talk more about it. To her, if the American theatre is serious about wanting to change for the better, “It’s a group effort, including programming and also people coming to the show.” But so far producers “just want permission to do what they’ve always done.”
Her current struggle with theatre, she said, is in the tension between the industry’s desire to put stories about marginalized people onstage and their reluctance to do enough to truly include those communities, especially in the audience.
“The best experience I had was my mother and a standing ovation for Ironbound, and me sitting next to her, and her feeling seen by the audience,” said Majok.
Indeed, hearing audiences react to her plays in this way has brought a sense of validation for Majok. It tells her that the stories of the people she grew up around, who had nothing but who made a life anyway, matter too.
“In writing about the specificity of a certain experience, it has brought people from very different perspectives into understanding the universality of it,” said Majok, as she pensively gazed out a window into the rain. “And that can be cool, to have an audience member be like, ‘Oh, I didn’t think that I was going to connect to this at all. But we’re more alike than we are different.’”
Diep Tran (she/her) is a former senior editor of this magazine. Follow her on Twitter @DiepThought.
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