Like so many Americans, I would not be in this nation if not for my immigrant ancestors, brave souls who made the challenging but promising journey to the New World. The challenges they faced are not so different from the experience of today’s immigrants—as was reinforced for me recently when I spoke with the playwright Martyna Majok, a native of Poland who grew up in New Jersey, mainly in Kearny. Her upcoming play, Queens, opens February 26 at Lincoln Center. The play and Majok’s own story reflect the often difficult path that most immigrants walk.
What was it like for you coming to America as a young child?
I was born in Poland during Communism. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, my mother left me with my grandparents in Poland to explore a potential life in America. She came back to Poland, pregnant, intent on the two of us moving to America. We settled in North Jersey, where my mother married a man [the father of her sister] who turned out to be destructive…. My mother was mostly alone, as our family had to stay in Poland. And for a time, we were undocumented. This made seeking help not only difficult, but dangerous. Still, my mother tried to give us all she could. My mother and I eventually became naturalized and moved away from this man.
What did your parents do?
I never met my father. My mother cleans houses and works at the post office as a letter carrier. When we first came to the country, she cleaned houses, was a personal care aide to the elderly, and worked in factories in Elizabeth and Jersey City.
What was the best part of your immigrant experience growing up in New Jersey?
Just about everyone I grew up with was from somewhere else. Many of us spoke one language at home and another at school, or a combination of the two. The neighborhood wasn’t one homogeneous immigrant community….We were from many different places, but we were all bound in having a relationship with another home and family far away.
What challenges did you face?
My family was low income in this country. [It was] a challenge, and not necessarily specifically a Jersey challenge. I think America has promoted itself as a country that is very equal opportunity, that anyone can make it if they work hard—the American Dream. But there are systemic limitations, barriers to exposure and opportunities that are often due to class. I watched my mother work hard. I worked hard. And some of us made it…sometimes by luck. But definitely not everyone.
What is Queens about?
It’s about a group of immigrant women, and their children, over time….The play asks us to look at some of the things we leave behind, for better or for worse, when trying to move your life forward in America. I swear it’s funny.
What messages about immigrants do you attempt to convey?
I am trying to create compelling, complicated, truthful characters that are fighting for the best versions of their lives. To give an audience a keyhole into a world they might not be familiar with….I think we are bound and alike in more ways than we are separate. We all understand loss. We understand love and fury and betrayal and striving. It might look different for all of us, but these things exist within all of us as humans. Through my plays, I’m trying to contribute full portraits of immigrants, and of women, and of the low-income experience, among others, because I want these images to exist in the world.