~By Norm Robins~
~Photos by Dana Nollsch~
Give me your tired, your poor,The New Colossus
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
By Emma Lazarus
This poem is memorialized on a bronze plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty facing Europe’s teeming shore. 110 years ago my grandparents who were part of Eastern Europe’s wretched refuse did indeed yearn to breathe free. Freedom for them meant the impossibility of a 2 AM banging on their door by a squad of armed secret police. It meant freedom from Cossacks with swords drawn riding through town cutting down everything that moved or breathed. My grandparents knew they lacked the skills, education, and acculturation to do anything except menial work in America. But that was far preferable to the notorious knock on the door, preferable to the drawn sword. They knew their children, also immigrants, would do better than they, and their grandchildren would go to college and dip their cups into the American punch bowl of prosperity. And they were right. And they were beautiful for sacrificing everything for these dreams. They shared with Polish, Serbian, German, Irish, Italian, and all other immigrants a dogged determination to “make it” in America.
But freedom offers opportunity, not a guarantee of results as Majok so skillfully shows. What if instead of a loving family life and a tablespoon or so of financial security, life in a free society guarantees neither of these?
Martyna Majok explores this in her riveting play Ironbound. The action spans 22 years from 1992 to 2014. Her hero is Darja (pronounced DAR-ya), a female Polish immigrant who is 34 years old in 2006. The action takes place in Elizabeth, N.J. where there was a factory in 1992 and an abandoned shell of a factory in later years. The workers remain after the factory has left for more opportunistic foreign climes. Darja has taken to cleaning houses for a living. She also has taken to unhappy, unfulfilling relationships.
There are only four cast members, all of them very good. Darja is our hero played beautifully by Debra Lynn Hull. Hull has the ability to show us what is happening on her inside by showing us what is happening on the outside. She makes Darja very real and very believable. We feel her joys and her sorrows. Maks is her husband in 1992 and the father of her errant son who is in Chicago making a mess of his life. Vic is the young street hustler who befriends her in 2006. He is the only one in the story who treats her with compassion and understanding. Tommy is her on-again-off-again and finally on again love interest in 2014. She finally accepts his love on a contingent basis. It is a tenuous acceptance, and we feel with her why.
This is a play worth seeing. It has its comic moments, but it is as serious as serious can be. And for us children and grandchildren of immigrants it resonates.
Ironbound plays at the Restless Artists Theater in Sparks October 18th through November 3rd. For more information and tickets go to www:rattheatre.org.
Darja……………………………Debra Lynn Hull
Written by Martyn Majok
Directed by…………………….D. A. Mishler
BWW Interview: Playwright Martyna Majok BOUND to Distribute Her Truths
Condensed from an interview published in Broadway World
Martyna Majok wrote IRONBOUND to share the story of the everyday challenges and hurdles of a Polish immigrant surviving in America, basing this theatrical piece on her own mother’s experiences.
Martyna took some time out to answer my inquisitive questions in much depth.
Thank you for taking your time out for this interview, Martyna!
Thank you for talking with me!
Where did the embryonic sparks of your script IRONBOUND come from?
I asked myself, during a difficult year, if I never wrote another play again, what would I regret not having said? That became IRONBOUND. I was thinking about the capitalist mentality, as it related to how we treat people in relationships – and how we love in this country. I was thinking also about who “gets to” marry for love, and for whom choices based on love, versus survival, are actually a luxury or even a liability. I was thinking of some of my own choices – and the choices of my mother – that were made out of necessity for survival… The play requires four actors and a bench or a bus stop sign…. This limitation was actually inspiring and strangely freeing – it made me write more leanly and make bolder choices. And I made sure to include humor.
Is the main character, Darja, a composite of women you personally know? Or a specific acquaintance?
IRONBOUND is based on my mother’s experiences in America. She and I came to North Jersey from Poland when I was young, and 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 and she worked in factories in Elizabeth and Jersey City. 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 center stage 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, usually a comparatively upper-class American character, about how it’s “best to live a simple life.” I wanted to contribute a more complex portrait of a strong, working-class, immigrant woman.
What audience reaction to your past productions of IRONBOUND has surprised you the most?
Sort of a spoiler but, in the end of the play, Darja decides not to follow her first husband from Jersey to Chicago. She’s already followed him from Poland to Jersey. And both trips, though partially for better economic opportunities, were also for the pursuit of his dreams. At the moment she makes the decision, she has a job in Jersey and is pregnant with her son. She wants to stay where she is. I’m always amazed whenever audiences ask why she doesn’t go with her first husband. Not because it’s a crazy question to ask, but because they rarely ask why he did not stay where she wanted to.
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 her son has sort of 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….
What inspired you to pursue a career in writing?
I wanted to share the stories of the people I grew up with, of my family, my mother, my neighborhoods. I found that playwriting lets me occupy the minds and experiences of many different people – sometimes people whose actions and decisions I don’t completely understand in life. I think I write about what I know to try to understand the things I don’t.
What message or feeling would you like the Geffen [the Los Angeles theater Geffen Playhouse] audiences to leave with after viewing IRONBOUND?
For those who have also grown up with these characters, or who are these characters, I hope they will feel seen. I hope they’ll feel that their stories and their lives are valued. And for those that might not otherwise meet these characters outside of a theater – or that might not talk to them – I hope they feel connected to another person, another world. Perhaps they even find themselves in a story that, at first glance, might seem very different from theirs. I hope some kind of bridge forms. That they look at their cab drivers or cleaning ladies, at the other people on the subway or waiting for the bus, a little differently, with a little more complexity and a wider understanding.
Thank you again, Martyna! I look forward to seeing your homage to your mother and other underappreciated working women.