Staging the Immigrant Experience from a Woman’s Perspective

all photos by: Marcia Davis

all photos by: Marcia Davis

 
 

There have been quite a number of plays and films in recent collective memory about the immigrant experience—from Brooklyn to In America to Hamilton. It is part of our national repertoire. Stories centered on the American experience thought the immigrant’s journey are never irrelevant, and they take on particular significance now. In Martyna Majok’s Ironbound, which recently completed a successful run at Seattle Public Theatre, the protagonist, Darja, is a recent immigrant from Poland. Her initiation onto American soil is a particularly harsh one. At a time when the issue of immigration is being used as a political football, for many US citizens, it’s easy to forget that our recent ancestors experienced their initiation onto the land of the free in a way that was less than welcoming. In his review, Charles McNutly of the LA Times writes, “ … by holding us to the fire of Darja’s story, Ironbound forces us to recognize the bitter reality of a system that renders invisible those hard-working casualties of the American dream.”   

Sadly, experiences of poor immigrant women are scarcely among these stories, and when they are, they are misrepresented. Ironbound distinguishes itself by avoiding the tropes commonly used to characterize the female immigrant. Daria is not the ingénue discovering her place in a fairytale new world or the quietly suffering maid or sweatshop worker who maintains her dignity through repeated hardships and injustices. Neither is she saved from her meagre circumstances by a wealthy or well-connected romantic interest. Darja solicits neither our pity nor our outrage. Majok is said to have based this character on her mother. Perhaps this is why Darja feels fully fleshed out. Seattle stage veteran Alexandra Tavares does an outstanding job, playing Darja with fierce vitality and an instinct for survival that has become her second nature.

All of the scenes in this 80-minute play take place at a bus stop in an industrial section of Newark, New Jersey, where Darja waits for a bus that never comes. Julia Hayes Welch’s set design evokes a sense of poverty, isolation, and that danger may be lurking right around the corner. Rusty chain-link fence behind the bus stop, the corrugated metal of the factory wall in the background, and the litter evoke a sense of poverty and neglect. The play spans more than 20 years, moving back and forth in time. Kelly Kitchens’ agile direction keeps the pacing brisk.

Love as a negotiation
The first scene finds a middle-aged Darja arguing with her philandering live-in boyfriend, Tommy. He makes endless excuses, weakly apologizes, and pleads for her to take him back. Whether or not Darja can forgive him is irrelevant. She needs him, and she knows it. Darja uses his guilt as a bargaining chip. She will take him back, she says, if he pays her to, and $3,000, is a number she can trust. Darja strikes a hard bargain. This is precisely because she knows how vulnerable she is. We later learn that she has an adult son grappling with addiction who has disappeared with her car. Only when she talks about her son do we truly understand her desperation.

The next scene takes place 22 years earlier, where a youthful Darja is engaged in a money-counting game with her husband, Maks, also a Polish immigrant. Maks’ idealism is in sharp contrast to her pragmatism, as he sees only opportunity where she sees obstacles. His America is a place where anything is possible, and his dream is to play the blues with the greats in Chicago. Darja bursts his bubble with the talk of money—she tells him they insurance, a car, and to move out of their cramped basement apartment—finally revealing that she is expecting a child.

In a later scene, we see Maks board a bus to pursue his musical dreams in Chicago as he begs a distraught and pregnant Darja to join him. Because she has a steady job in a factory, she chooses to stay with what is known.

As a native New Yorker, I could not help but wonder why Maks did not choose to go to New York City instead, which is a half-hour bus ride away and has an equally thriving blues scene. However, this departure sets up the following scene, which takes place several years later. A bruised Darja has just left her violent second husband, the factory owner. She seeks shelter for the night at the same bus stop. Ever suspicious of unknown men, she hesitatingly makes a friend in the young street hustler, Vic, who gives her money for a hotel for the night.

We may not agree with all of Darja’s choices, but we understand them. To her, love is inextricably linked to financial survival. As she is a single mother, it needs to be. Coupled with the fact that she is an immigrant without a secondary education, she has with few options, and this makes her circumstances even more burdensome. However, Majok prevents Darja’s story from becoming tragic as she infuses her character with humor and a spirit that refuses to admit defeat, allowing the audience to root for her at every turn.

A word about the title
The Ironbound is a neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey. In the second half of the 19th century, the Ironbound drew a large number of immigrants, both documented and undocumented, who found quick employment in the area’s many forges and foundries. The Ironbound became the industrial center of the city, where the poorest residents lived and toiled in factories 12 hours a day, six days a week, until the factories slowly closed decades later. Ironbound may also refer to the unyielding nature of poverty—of those stuck in a perpetual cycle of dead-end work. One suspects that Majok had both the location and the literal meaning of the word in mind.