Martyna Majok’s Legacy Has Only Just Begun

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Lucille Lortel award, recent recipient of the 2023 Obie Award for Playwriting, and now Tony Award-nominated: Martyna Majok’s legacy has only just begun. Her work is urgent, exploring pressing stories of the American experience that demand to be told.

Although she is deep in the throes of writing the musical adaptation of The Great Gatsby (with music by Florence Welch and Thomas Bartlett), Martyna found some time to spend with TRW, discussing her play SANCTUARY CITY and revealing some of her writing process.

KATIE STOTTLEMIRE: SANCTUARY CITY follows two characters, B and G, over the course of their friendship. Together (and sometimes separately), they face the challenges of living as an undocumented person in the United States. In a New York Stage Review by Elyse Gardner, SANCTUARY CITY is said to “transcend politics as only the best and most humane art can.” How did you approach the creation of this story, and what was important to you as you crafted B and G’s narrative?

MARTYNA MAJOK: I tried to approach this story, and most of my plays, from the human and the personal. The characters in my plays are often loose composites of people I know or have been, combinations of aspects of myself and people I grew up with. And the political is an active given in their lives. History and policy dictate certain circumstances and challenges to their lives and futures in this country. As does class and race and limitations of means. And the reasons for and way in which the immigrant characters may have come to America, where and how they’re living, the help of their communities here or lack thereof. The political isn’t really separate from these characters’ lives because they’re dealing with its limitations and dangers on the daily. But the characters are also their very specific selves, with their specific humors and quirks and loves and losses and yearnings and anger and joy. It was important to me that an audience felt invited to come to know these characters — and maybe to recognize bits of themselves — within the circumstance of being undocumented in America and trying to begin an adult life with hope in the face of resistance. At its heart, SANCTUARY CITY is the story of a deep friendship that gets severely tested by the immigration policy of this country. But it’s also about finding and trying to hold onto a home in someone — that sacred relationship with your person who understands you like nobody else. That rare friend or love who you believe when they tell you: “I got you.”

KS: Oftentimes, plays give audiences the opportunity to not only learn of certain political or social issues, but to witness an experience of those who face those issues in their own lives. How do you decide which stories to pursue (and, consequently, spend a long time with)? How much is informed by your own passions and interests, compared to what you (or others) might think the world needs?

MARTYNA: For some people, B and G’s world may be an unfamiliar one — or a world they’re more familiar with from news articles — and for them I hope the play contributes a more intimate and personal picture to those headlines and articles, a picture of a life. And for others, it will be shorthand, an experience they know in their bones. Which I hope will do for them something like what seeing the work of other playwrights writing from similar worlds and experiences does for me — which is to make me feel more connected, less lonely, and more alive. A tall order maybe but that’s always the hope — connection, feeling fuller in one’s life, seeing and being seen. Either way, I hope it’s a night of communing in the theatre — whether it’s your world or very much not. Because ultimately, collectively, it is our world. As for how I choose which stories to pursue, it feels more like listening to which story pursues me. SANCTUARY CITY came to me while I was working on another play. I had been actively writing “Queens” that day. And a DREAMer character had surprised me and walked into the narrative. That night, I couldn’t sleep. Something about the appearance of that character in “Queens” had sparked some memories to start kicking around in my mind. So much so that I couldn’t sleep. So, I got up in the middle of that night — I think it was 3am — and started writing what I thought were notes to myself…that were turning into notes for a play…that were turning out to be the actual scenes of the play, arriving on the page in this sort of fragmented but associative style. I wrote for three days straight until I had the first draft of SANCTUARY CITY because I was so afraid of losing the story, of losing the words to this love letter and apology. At least, I hope that’s how it comes across.

KS: What do you believe are the responsibilities of a playwright?

MARTYNA: To write generously and with complexity about the things and people that they most care about. To invite others into their worlds. To attempt to vanquish the loneliness of being unseen or misunderstood.

KS: What is one of the best pieces of advice you have received?

MARTYNA: Lately, it’s this quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald:“…the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” Because I love his call upon our determination — to make it otherwise.

Read Martyna Majok’s bio


Article by Katie Stottlemire