Lin-Manuel Miranda’s anthem to the immigrant’s tale — Immigrants (We Get The Job Done) — the freshest take on America’s oldest story — is light years from the version Martyna Majok tells us in her new play, queens.
Her post-9/11 immigrants, all women, hunker down in a grim basement space in Queens. They eye each new arrival suspiciously, having learned that trust invites betrayal. Each has left home — Belaruse, Poland, Honduras, Ukraine; each has left a daughter or a lover behind to come to New York to earn money to improve the family’s lot. They are brave and terrified. So far, it is a touching but unremarkable tale.
In Act 1, Majok sets about conjuring four disparate women joined in common cause. As they navigate a new culture, a new language, and new rules, they struggle with their choices. Daughters are growing up at home without them. Mothers are buried at home before their daughters in Queens know they’re sick. Lovers are lost. What must they remember? What must they forget? This quartet of women, is doing it’s best to embrace a situation fraught with disappointment and raggedly altered expectations.
Majok’s script is rife with cut-to-the-core lines. She deftly sets the action in the shadow of the fallen towers. She underscores the universality of loss when she puts a powerful exchange about a mother’s death entirely in Polish.
This Polish-born writer captures the women’s sense of otherness, of some shame and some fear. She has Renia explain her reluctance to speak:
"If someone speaks English with no accent, or if they sound French, German, something like, people what don’t really need to come here, then is different. But I open my mouth and whole history my country pours out. How much money I have, wars, history, everything pours out. Nothing like what happens to you happens to me but I talk only how much I need to here."
Majok gut-punches with finesse.
Seven actors give us ten characters. Each is pitch perfect. The writer has a gift for touching stereotypes without brandishing them. Isabela/Glenys (Nicole Villamil) is a fiery Latina, yes, but you can enjoy her snark vis-a-vis her hateful cousin or her metaphorically “squared shoulders” as she braces for the DACA challenge. Aamani/Yara (Nadine Malouf) is a nurturing Afghani lesbian, with a heart of gold, but you can also see her backbone and personal dignity. Inna (Sarah Tolan-Mee) serves up the rage of an abandoned daughter but keeps her theatrical footing as she meanders along the line of rage and self-loathing. Each character generates considerable heft and brio.
Lera (Andrea Syglowski) comes home in a glittery shirt showing too much flesh after a night dancing at a bar in Ukraine. She breaks your heart as she tells her young friend how she explains her compromises to herself.
Ana Reeder (Renia) carries the “arc” of the play, if you will. In Act 1 she is the newest immigrant to find sanctuary in the basement. The others taunt her and tease her and ultimately embrace her. She is tender and vulnerable and we love her. Over the course of the play, her 16 years in Queens, she toughens up, and more.
None of the principles speak unaccented English. Russian and Polish and Spanish accents color all of the dialogue. Some are American born, some emigres. I had the great good fortune to see this performance with a multilingual friend, who assured me the accents dressing the deliveries were spot on. Dialect Coach Jane Guyer Fujita is a Svengali.
That they are women telling the tale is the crux of the matter. What they sacrifice is the wonder years of the children they leave behind, all the years of the unspoken, and, until left, unappreciated comforts of home. If you need one reason to see queens it is to listen to the women. The perfect accents aside, this is how we talk to one another. There are wonderful moments in the shorthand of women — if you are not a woman, pay attention! That a woman wrote it and a woman, Danya Taymor (Julie Taymor's neice), directs seems essential.
So, lots to like, even love here. But, still there are the nearly inevitable second act problems (although, here it is second and third, I guess, as there are two intermissions, the second of which seems more than odd and seems to have a lot to do with hanging drapes.)
Point being, the first act does its job in a big way. Time and locations shift with ease. All the set-up sits on the shoulders of real women. Second/third act has some issues. The payoff, the immigrants’ story gone wrong, is intentionally ambiguous. While intriguing, it is not satisfying.
The set is both intriguing and wildly functional. I felt on leaving that I had spent two hours and forty minutes in a dreary basement in Queens with a lot of other people — and I mean that as a complement to designer Laura Jellinek.
The sound, courtesy of Stowe Nelson, was aggressive in making us all feel we were in the bunker, below stairs near the #7 train rumbling by.
Bottom line — I’m really glad I got to see this play. It has much to recommend it. It has power and passion and laughter and pathos. It’s a small room, so not so many tickets. If you’re asking me, I’d say go.
(Photo by Erin Baiano)
What the popular press says...
"For at least its first act, Martyna Majok’s new play “queens” — uncapitalized for unknown reasons — is a knockout. That’s literally the case in the opening scene, in which someone gets punched in the face. The next 60 minutes or so keep delivering cold-cocks of emotion and surprise as Ms. Majok sets up her story. It takes so long because the canvas is so large, eventually encompassing 16 years during which 11 immigrant women at various points come to live in an illegal basement apartment in capital-Q Queens."
Jesse Green for New York Times
"The play doesn’t entirely work: It’s overwritten, characters can grandstand, and the text’s humor struggles in this LCT3 production. But there’s a thrill in seeing the talented playwright behind the superb Ironbound confidently work on a larger canvas."
Helen Shaw for Time Out New York
External links to full reviews from popular press...