Immigration Crises, Through a Polish Lens: Martyna Majok’s “Cost of Living” at the Fountain

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By Brian Marks

Martyna Majok is originally from Poland, but she and her mother immigrated to the United States when she was five years old. Though Majok (pronounced MY-oak) has spent the majority of her life in the US, particularly in New Jersey and Chicago, the experiences and struggles of immigrants have colored most of her mature works. Her plays Ironbound, Queens, and the upcoming Sanctuary City, are all centered on the lives of immigrants living in this country.

In addition to national origin, Majok’s work touches on class and disability, particularly in Cost of Living. The play began its life as a one-act called John, who’s here from Cambridge, which premiered in 2015. The play was expanded and renamed, and eventually won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, one of numerous honors Majok has won.

I corresponded with Majok via email while she was in town for previews of the West Coast premiere of Cost of Living, in a production directed by John Vreeke. 

@THIS STAGE:  Two of the actors in the Fountain Theatre production of Cost of Living are veterans of your plays. Katy Sullivan originated the role of Ani, and Xochitl Romero has previously appeared in the La Jolla Playhouse production of Queens. What kind of benefits does that familiarity bring? Are there aspects of your style that they can more easily tap in to?

MARTYNA MAJOK:  I actually was not involved in the casting process at Fountain Theatre. Katy let me know she was considering the LA production — which thrilled me — and Xochitl was chosen through the audition process. I didn’t even know she was going in for John Vreeke, the director, until she was cast. I loved that. I was so happy these two actors would be a part of this show. There are very many wonderful actors out there, but there are some that especially “get you” as a writer. You’ll notice that playwrights (and directors, filmmakers, etc.) sometimes return to the same actors for their projects. I do the same — I seek out actors who “get” my worlds. (And I look forward to meeting more of those actors.) For me, that is because the road of translation from page to performance is shorter — there’s a shorthand for the understanding and expression of certain characters and circumstances off the page — and that means you can start digging deeper into a new play a lot faster. A facility and faithfulness to language and rhythm, humor, strength, appetite, and front-footedness are very important to me. Katy and Xochitl have all of that and more. They understand and seem to connect with their characters. They don’t pity or judge them or look down on them. They understand the rhythms of their humor. They play them with heart and strength, with humanity. They make no “comments” about their characters in their acting. They don’t judge them as “good” or “bad.” They endeavor to manifest their characters truthfully, all sides of them.

@THIS STAGE:  In addition to class, Cost of Living explores disability, which tends to be discussed much less than other forms of difference and privilege. What initially interested you about writing a play examining disability?

MAJOK:  I don’t think I’m examining disability. I wrote a play about class and yearning and loneliness and the journey towards connection with other human beings in America that happens to feature two disabled characters. (As well as two — or more, the play leaves that open — characters of color, two female-identifying characters, three working class characters, and three characters who are first or second generation immigrants.) This is not an identity play. I don’t ignore these characters’ specific experiences in the world. But they are, to me, first and foremost, characters. People. Not representatives of any one identity. The characters are composites of people I know or have been, aspects of what I was feeling and experiencing the year I wrote it. I have been employed in the work that Jess does in the play and, yes, I have people in my life with disabilities. But I did not set out to write a play about disability.

@THIS STAGE:  Katy Sullivan and Tobias Forrest are both actors with disabilities, but their characters have different disabilities. Is that an obstacle at all, or do you think their experiences are similar to those of their characters?

MAJOK:  You’d have to ask them about their specific experiences. And I wasn’t in the room during rehearsals but, from what I know, I don’t believe it was an obstacle. The first two productions featured one actor who did have the same disability as his character (Gregg Mozgala has cerebral palsy, as does the character of John) and one that did not (the character of Ani is quadriplegic and Katy was born a bilateral, transfemoral amputee). When we were casting for the first two productions, I wanted to create the most opportunities for actors with disabilities as I could, and so I did not stipulate that the disability of the performer had to be exactly the disability of the character. Similarly, because the character of Ani is a first generation American, I provided variations on her name in the notes before the script, as well as small potential adjustments in the text, to suit the actor cast to play her. This is in hopes of assembling a cast that looks like North Jersey and its beautiful diversity, while also creating more opportunities for disabled actors, whatever their background. In the prologue, Ani’s full name can be Ania Łucja Skowrońska-Torres or Ani Luz Hernandez-Torres or Ani Li-Torres or Ānanda Singh-Torres, amongst many options. In the prologue, Na zdrowie can be replaced with Salud, or فى صحتك:, or 건배, etc., to suit the actress playing Ani. 

@THIS STAGE:  What kind of preparation and learning did you have to do to feel comfortable and respectful in writing parts for disabled characters?

MAJOK:  I drew from my experiences as a caregiver. I talked to friends and family. I read. I talked at length with Gregg, the actor who originated the role of John, who has cerebral palsy. I shared the drafts-in-process with fellow artists with disabilities — actors, playwrights, and directors.

@THIS STAGE:  Winning the Pulitzer for Cost of Living has to have been a major event for you. How has life (creatively or generally) changed since Cost of Living‘s Pulitzer win?

MAJOK:  It feels like many things changed, but then also nothing changed. I received a lot of emails and texts and phone calls from friends and colleagues the day of. One of the best things was hearing from people I hadn’t heard from in a while. It was a wonderful opportunity to reconnect. Some of the public attention was a bit overwhelming to me, particularly from the press and media. I appreciated the interest, but also realized I valued my privacy more than I once thought. I don’t necessarily feel different. I have my same doubts and hopes. And I’m still working on the same things, the same projects. I’m very grateful and happy about the award. It’s something I’ve dreamed about since I knew of its existence. But what I write about and how I write hasn’t necessarily changed. I celebrated and got back to work. I do hope though that the award further validates working class narratives and encourages theatres to seek out and produce more plays like this.

@THIS STAGE:  What was the process of writing Cost of Living like?

MAJOK:  Often I’ll start writing and not realize where an idea or a character came from until I’m looking back, from far on the other side of “end of play.” Cost of Living, I believe, started from a place of grief and loss. Eddie Torres was the first to arrive. I had just moved to NYC in August of 2013. It was then January 2014. A Saturday night. I was living in a sublet in Brooklyn. I had very little money at the time. Not much of a security net. No health insurance. And, that night in January, I had just lost my job at a restaurant. The manager thought I’d stolen some money. One hundred dollars. (I hadn’t. Though in retrospect I wish I had because I got fired all the same.) It had just started snowing outside the window — a big storm, they said, was coming. I couldn’t afford to rent an actual apartment of my own at the time. I couldn’t afford the security deposit. I could barely afford that month’s rent. That year, I would live in 13 different sublet apartments, one of which had bedbugs that left many of my belongings destroyed. And what was weighing on my heart was the recent death of a very dear family member. He’d died, unexpectedly, in Poland, where the rest of my family lives. I didn’t have the money to fly to be at his funeral. Also, I was afraid to go. To say goodbye. I was afraid for it to be true. I felt very far away. I started wishing I could see his ghost. Something. I was longing for some kind of magic. I think that’s what happens when you’re in grief — or at least it did to me — you see symbols and messages that you think are there just for you. You see signs in places you might otherwise ignore. You are both highly attuned to the world and also very much outside of it. You hope for magic. For something beyond. Some indication that something’s remained. And that’s when Eddie’s voice came to me that snowy night. I wrote that first scene in one sitting and it hasn’t really changed much since that night. A few months later, I wrote about John and Jess. And then Ani. The characters came to me incrementally over a year. I had been wondering about care. About the nature of helping others and being helped. About need and survival. And I was thinking of the survivors in and around my life. I had been thinking about The Living. We’re so often confronted by loss and tragedy — personally, nationally, and globally — but what do we do with this? Aside from working to change the future for the better, what do we do with our losses? Our tragedies? I can’t remember who told me this or where I’d heard or read it but someone once said that, after a certain point, your life becomes a succession of losses. So I tried to build a home for four people in Cost of Living where they could feel held by each other — and where I could be held — in our losses. And continue fully living. 

Cost of Living opens November 2 and runs through December 16 at The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles. Performances are Fridays, Saturdays, and Mondays at 8 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. For tickets, click here, or call (323) 663-1525.

Brian Marks

Brian Marks

Brian is an L.A.-based arts writer who hails from Indiana. In addition to theater, he regularly covers film, television, and music. His criticism and reporting have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Village Voice, and LA Weekly. Find him on Twitter @BrianMarks356.