TR Robertson — Playwright Martyna Majok, winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play “Cost of Living”, brings her play, “Queens” to the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse for the plays west coast premiere. The play centers on the struggles of a variety of immigrant women from a number of different countries, living in the basement in the New York City borough of Queens. Majok draws on her own personal experience as she, as a child, emigrated from Poland to New Jersey with her single mother, watching her mother learn English and taking whatever jobs she could get to support their family.
“Queens” premiered at the Lincoln Center Theater’s Claire Tow Theatre, New York City. It is a play featuring women most will not identify with and most of the women audience members will find hard to like. These are women trying to make the best of the situation they find themselves in, trying to just get by. Many of them send money back to their families still living in the countries the women come from. “Queens” will take you through different time periods as you meet a number of women who reside in the basement, covering one evening in 2017 and flashbacks to 2001-2017. One central figure will appear throughout the play, Reina, a Polish immigrant woman, who you meet in 2001 first moving into the basement and then at different times as she remains in the basement for 17 years. Reina’s desire is to someday bring her daughter to America, a story line that will become central to the play at the end.
Photos by Jim Carmody
Playing Renia is Brenda Meany, making her La Jolla Playhouse debut. Meany does a masterful job of taking Renia emotionally through the changes she will go through from a scared, timid woman just looking for a place to live, to a woman who one minute shows compassion and the next angrily feels she has struggled and risen above the basement life. Xochitl Romero plays Isabella, from Honduras and Isabella’s daughter Glenys. Isabella is leaving the basement to return to her family and later in the play Glenys has come to the U.S. to find a better life and seeks Renia’s help. Jolly Abraham plays Aamani from Afghanistan and in Act II a young Yara. As Aamani, Abraham shows a woman who is a bit hardened by the life here, but still knows she is better off here than where she came from.
The other women in “Queens” include Rae Gray who plays Inna, a bit of a mystery woman who arrives in 2017 seeking a woman in a photo and this will bring back painful thoughts to Reina of a daughter she has not seen in years. Leslie Fray plays Pelagiya and Dragana and Melissa Miller plays Lera. Melissa Miller plays Agata, a woman who seems to have been more successful than any of the others and who knows more about Reina’s situation than even Reina herself. The seven women will portray women from seven different countries and at various times they will speak in Spanish, Ukrainian and Polish as well as broken English. Quite an accomplishment for these actresses.
“Queens” is directed by Carey Perloff who previously served for 25 years as the Artistic Director of American Conservatory Theater. Her creative team includes Scenic Director David Israel Reynoso, Lighting Designer Lap Chi Chu, Costume Designer Denitsa Bliznakova, Sound Designer/Composer Mark Bennett, Dialect Coach Christine Adaire and Stage Manager Katrina Herrmann. Reynoso’s basement apartment captured what many of these living situations must look like and the clever rising curtain is designed to look like the city apartment buildings of New York City.
It has been said that Majok “gives a voice to the voiceless in her plays”. The women in “Queens” are trying to get by, to make some kind of a life better than the one they left. They, for the most part, keep to themselves, protect their personal stories, try to make the best with what they have and get excited about things we consider commonplace. One moment in the play, after a bit of turmoil, Aamani unveils a series of bottles of alcohol, hidden in different parts of the basement, left by women who previously lived in the apartment, all to the delight of the women in the room.
What these women go through and what they have left surfaces in some of the “passing” comments they make to one another; “Progress means to forget”, “Sometimes you have to live a whole new life”, “Let go of your old life”, and “Don’t hold to nothing”. All reflect a feeling that to start a new life you have to let go of your old one, many times leaving others behind.
There is an interesting section in the program that gives audience members some information about Queens that is well worth reading. Queens is called the borough of immigrants with some 1.1 million naturalized, undocumented, Green Card holders and other individuals living in the area, many in illegal housing units referred to as “the housing underground”. It is estimated that 300-500,000 residents live in the basement type residences featured in “Queens”.
“Queens” runs about 2 ½ hours in length. It is on staged at the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre at the La Jolla Playhouse. The play will run until June 29th. Tickets are available by going to www.LaJollaPlayhouse.org or call 858-550-1010.