Martyna Majok’s “Ironbound” is the story of the relationship between Darja, a struggling Polish immigrant, and three very different men. The play, she says, was inspired by the work of Marxist theorist Slavoj Zizek.
It’s also a comedy.
Despite its weighty subject matter, the last thing Majok wants is “for the audience to sit there for the next hour and a half thinking this is just drama. You have to give them permission to laugh.”
Majok, AB’07, is one of three playwrights featured in Steppenwolf Theatre’s First Look series, which runs through Aug. 24. The five-year-old program is aimed at developing new plays for production at Steppenwolf and other theaters nationwide.
“Ironbound” emerged as Majok was preparing to marry her then-fiancé and reflecting on “who has the privilege to marry for love.” Both Majok and her husband grew up poor and chose to pursue careers in the arts. Majok says they feared they would never have economic security. “We know how hard it is to get out of a cycle of poverty.”
She began to reflect on the romantic choices made by her mother—like Darja, a working-class immigrant from Poland.
“She would make what ended up being the wrong decisions for all the right reasons, trying to do the best thing that she could for her children and for herself,” Majok explains.
Around the same time, Majok was reading Zizek’s Violence during long commutes between a residency and teaching position at a theater in New Jersey and Connecticut, where her fiancé was in graduate school. “What I took away from that is that capitalism makes us treat each other as commodities,” she says. “‘What can you do for me, what can I do for you’ doesn’t exactly equal love.”
With Zizek’s writing, her mother’s experience, and her own impending marriage all simmering in her head, Majok dashed off the first draft of “Ironbound” in just a week. The play follows Darja over 22 years, depicting her at different points in her three marriages and showing her fierce struggle to survive and provide security for her son.
After two workshop productions, she submitted “Ironbound” to Steppenwolf at the suggestion of the company’s literary manager, who had mentored Majok during an internship after college.
“Part of our deal was that if I came to Chicago, I had to bring him Polish food, so I just brought him three pounds of kielbasa and some pierogi. Hopefully he liked it. I haven’t heard back from him, so maybe it was too much,” Majok jokes.
Becoming a playwright was never Majok’s plan, although she always showed a flair for writing. She didn’t see her first play until high school, when she won $45 playing pool and decided to treat herself to a production of “Cabaret” on Broadway.
As a University of Chicago undergraduate, she tried out for a play and fell in love with the strong bonds she created with her castmates. “I loved the communities that you form—these little ridiculous, inside joke-y families,” she says.
Her love of theater flourished as she studied with David Bevington and Nick Rudall at UChicago. She delved into playwriting during a quarter studying abroad in Paris.
She describes her first play as “the 22-year-old play that you write about your family. It was a super dark and ungenerous and emo play.” University Theater ultimately produced the piece, and Majok decided she wanted to make playwriting a career.
“It’s the thing that I found challenging and exciting and I felt it had worth,” she explains. “Leaving some sort of permanence was attractive.”
Supported by a fellowship from the Merage Foundation for the American Dream, Majok spent the first two years after graduating from UChicago immersing herself in the theater community by watching, studying, reading and writing as many plays as she could. She went on to study playwriting at the Yale School of Drama.
Over time, she says, she’s worked to make her plays funnier and less self-serious than her earlier efforts, and to write rich, complex female characters. “Women with strong appetites and flaws—I would like to see these women on stage, and if I were an actor, I would want to play these women who go after something hungrily,” she says.
Her next project focuses on the women and families that continued to live near Chernobyl after the nuclear disaster, despite the risks to their health and safety.
Even when tackling the weighty topic of Chernobyl, Majok’s darkly comedic sensibility still shines through. “It’s a musical,” she says.