Chicago has shaped playwright Martyna Majok and set her on a path of success that most who’ve picked up a pen could only dream of — all of which she fears could disappear in an instant.
The anxiety might seem misplaced considering her credentials: a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2018, a 2022 Broadway debut, a collaboration with songstress Florence Welch for an in-the-works musical adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” an upcoming HBO series based on one of her works, and a play — “Sanctuary City” — set for a Chicago premiere Sept. 14 at the Steppenwolf Theatre.
“It’s never enough; I see catastrophe at every corner, every turn,” Majok tells the Sun-Times.
Stable footing has always seemed fleeting.
She came to the United States from Poland in grade school with her mother, who worked in factories and cleaned houses to provide for her two daughters in a working-class neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey. They lived among immigrants from around the globe.
“Sanctuary City” tells the story of two undocumented teenagers in post-9/11 New Jersey whose bond is tested by immigration policies and unrequited love. It’s directed by Steph Paul, and stars Grant Kennedy Lewis, Brandon Rivera and Jocelyn Zamudio.
“Most of my plays have characters deeply concerned about safety and fighting tooth and nail to find some version of it. But if it’s never enough, and that’s a sort of dangerous treadmill. I don’t know what I need to achieve to make me finally feel safe enough. I’m working on it,” admitted Majok, who’s in her 30s and lives in Manhattan.
She discovered theater on the city’s South Side as a scholarship kid walking the University of Chicago’s Hyde Park campus on freshman orientation day. Tables were set up by different groups and clubs on the school quad, including one for theater.
“All these kids had special language and codes and talked about seeing each other in theater camp and I was like, ‘What? There’s f---ing theater camp? You guys go to camp for this s---! I’m going to leave because you’re going to find out how much I don’t belong.’ And I stayed away for a while because I was so convinced they’d smell a rat,” said Majok.
“I knew I didn’t have means, but I really knew when I got to school.”
Months later, a school production of a play by English playwright Sarah Kane caught her eye and she thought: “F--- it. I’ll audition.”
“I got in the play and fell in love. It was a world of love and yearning and sadness and trying to express something more honest than daily life allows us to be or show,” she said.
Junior year, as childhood memories weighed on her, including domestic violence that was brought into her home by her stepfather — she began to write.
“I wrote about people in my life from their perspectives and it helped me process things, I made those things into scenes in plays, and they were terrible, but it was therapeutic. I felt like a fuller version of a human after the act of making, of creating,” said Majok, who stuck with it.
She graduated and won a fellowship established by Paul Merage, the Iranian American creator of the Hot Pocket, to help immigrant students follow their dreams. It came with a stipend that covered some living expenses and allowed her to take classes at Chicago Dramatists and Victory Gardens Theater.
“I couldn’t fail. My family is immigrants. We didn’t know how to pursue a life in the arts in America. I didn’t have a backup plan,” she said.
Majok rented an apartment in Lake View, hung dresses on the walls for color, and dissected plays she checked out of the Harold Washington Library — all while waitressing at bars near Division and Rush Streets.
“It was horrible, my soul was dying. Nothing good happens after 2 a.m. I quit and became a part-time caretaker for two men with disabilities,” she said. (She based her 2018 play “Cost of Living” on the experience. It won the aforementioned Pulitzer.)
After two years in Chicago following her graduation from the University of Chicago, she left to study drama at Yale University.
“Chicago to me is just real good f---ing people. I’m so glad it’s where I began my career,” she said.
She hopes people see her play and realize something she did a long time ago.
“None of us know what the f--- we’re doing. We’re all this way,” Majok said. “My favorite thing is to go to the theater and cry my eyes out, to feel less alone in our confusion and grief and the things we’re holding on to, and say ‘Yes! Me too! Me too!’ And now out back into the world, bound in our commonalities of ‘We don’t know what the f--- we’re doing.’”