Immigrants and American Animus Coexist in queens
Martyna Majok's new plays debuts at LCT3.
The borough of Queens was once seen as a bastion of whiteness in an ever-browning city: It was pointedly the home of racist sitcom curmudgeon Archie Bunker, as well as the birthplace of our current president, whose landlord father was investigated by the US Justice Department for racial discrimination. So there is some irony in the fact that Queens now regularly tops lists of the most ethnically diverse counties in the United States, and nearly half of its residents are foreign-born.
America has the potential to change rapidly, but do all of those foreigners make Queens any less American? Martyna Majok captures not only the dynamism of this country in her extraordinary new play, queens, but also the communicability of our peculiar mania. Now making its world premiere at LCT3, it is the most honest dramatization of the immigrant experience to come along this century.
Taking place between 2001 and 2017, it tells the story of how Polish immigrant Renia (Ana Reeder) went from sharing an illegal basement apartment in Queens with three strangers to owning the whole building. That outcome seems unlikely in late fall of 2001, when New York still smells like ash and Renia has fled the wrath of Agata (a menacing Zuzanna Szadkowski), the Polish woman who first helped her move to the States. Her new roommates are skinflint Belarusian Pelagiya (the hilarious Jessica Love) and Afghan asylee Aamani (Nadine Malouf, giving us chills with her prophetic performance). Third roommate Isabela (a fiery Nicole Villamil) is packing for her return journey to Honduras the night Renia arrives. All of the women are fiercely protective of their money and belongings, a quality undoubtedly developed from years surviving in a city that smells weakness. Yet they lay their armor aside for one boozy night as they see Isabela off and welcome Renia in.
Majok smartly frames Renia's story within that of Inna (Sarah Tolan-Mee), a new arrival in 2017 from Ukraine who comes to the house looking for her estranged mother. Renia also has a daughter back in Poland and even though she sends money, they don't really have a relationship. The tension between responsibility and intimacy in a global economy haunts this play. On top of delivering an authentic story of women moving thousands of miles from home in order to provide for their families, Majok and director Danya Taymor make us feel the consequences of that difficult decision.
Reeder gives one of the most soul-shaking performances of the season as Renia. She ferociously portrays a tireless immigrant in a country that mythologizes such people. Her fervor is that of a convert, but the rage that drives her also manifests itself in a frightening lack of compassion for the less exceptional. Through unvarnished vulnerability, Reeder maintains our sympathy even as she reveals Renia's ugly side. This is a woman who had big plans to change the system and make it easier for the immigrants following behind her. By the end, it is tragically clear that the system has changed her.
We experience the oppressive enormity of that crushing machine through Laura Jellinek's set, which features a massive ceiling that closes in over the stage and the audience, placing us unequivocally underground. Matt Frey's practical lighting further captures the dim realities of subterranean living in New York City. Kaye Voyce's off-the-rack costumes show the confidence that can be gleaned from a cheap but eye-catching outfit, especially when the world is determined to keep you down. Taymor's lengthy scene transitions leave much to be desired, but Stowe Nelson effectively covers with tension-preserving interstitial music, which manages to simultaneously convey hope and sadness.
"You gotta lose some things sometimes to make room for better life," Rania tells Inna, painting a beautiful picture of what her life in the West can be if she lets go of the past. It is hard not to admire her pioneer spirit, even as we recognize how dearly her devotion to this primary American myth has cost her. Navigating with empathy and intelligence, Majok explores the sustaining power of such myths, the porous border between aid and exploitation, and the cruel way time can render our best-laid plans irrelevant. With queens, she gives us a fascinating look into immigrant life in America, and a crucial reflection of our values in a time of national reassessment.