City Speaks: Artistic Director Tracy Brigden on Ironbound & the American Dream

May 17th, 2017 / Posted in 2016-2017 Season, CitySpeaks, For Fun, Home Page Latest News, Ironbound, Plays

To cap off our 2016/17 Blog Series, City Theatre Artistic Director Tracy Brigden shares an initial analysis of Martyna Majok’s Ironbound, which informed her understanding of the play.

Ironbound is a play about a Polish immigrant making her way in America today. 20th century immigrant narratives often tell a familiar story: fulfillment of the American dream through gritty determination, hard work, adaptation, and faith in the promise of “The Home of the Brave.” 21st century immigrant stories are different—even more so in the last 100 days! Sadly in this new New World, the factories are closed, many cities are too expensive for average folks, minimum wage remains stagnant, and “even the ugly jobs they don’t have no more” as Darja, our protagonist says.The American Dream has become an elusive proposition.

The play is set between 1992-2014, and over the course of those twenty-plus years The American Dream has become an elusive proposition. The playwright, a Polish immigrant herself, has said that she wanted to write her mother’s story. She wanted to see a poor woman’s story on stage—the particular journey of a woman trapped by fate, the economy, and poor choices in a foreign land. Our woman, Darja, is stuck. She is caught in a classic vicious cycle. Every time she starts to get ahead, one tiny—or large—wrong move puts her in crisis again, sometimes to the point that she may fall over the brink into a truly bad situation like homelessness. As we see when she negotiates with her boyfriend Tommy in the first scene, her standards are impossibly low; she has no power to make any demands and must settle for whatever meager portion is allotted. As she says to Maks, her first husband, when he tells her to find her special dream that no one can steal from her, “I can’t think what’s something can’t someone take.” And so we find her at the perfect metaphor for her situation in life: a bus stop. But not just any bus stop—the worst, scariest, grubbiest, darkest, loneliest bus stop ever; a place where anything might lurch out of the darkness to gobble you up. But Darja’s bus never comes; this is her own Polish, Jersey, Waiting for Godot, the perfect image to represent her life. Martyna says in her stage directions, “Stars exist beyond the smog; we can’t see them… this is a world of constant less.” Darja should strive to get out, but looming in her life is the cautionary tale of her coworker at the paper factory who, for one moment, dreamed of not being there and had her arm sliced to ribbons. The lure of a better, happier life as symbolized by Maks and his big dreams is not for Darja.

Rebecca Harris as Darja and JD Taylor as Maks in “Ironbound” at City Theatre.

Everyone else in the play has hopes—aspirations for true love or better days—but Darja can’t move forward or back. Even by the end of the play, her “fuck this bus” is not a cry of rebellion, it is merely an acceptance of things the way they are.

On the play’s title page, Martyna includes a quote from poet Robert Pinsky “…often I cannot tell good fortune from bad. That once had seemed so easy to tell apart.” But I see a ray of hope for Darja. She has held on to the one thing that makes her unique: her son. For him, she is the only one. As she says to Tommy, “This world it have millions peoples like me, millions womens. But is only one me for him. He can’t to throw this away.” When she meets teenager Vic, a metaphoric stand-in for her son whom we never meet, we see how children can take care of mothers as much as mothers nurture children.

During rehearsals, Martyna told me that her mother got to see the play in NY and loved seeing her own story portrayed on stage. I can only imagine how proud she must be of her brilliant daughter and how grateful she must feel for this recognition and tribute to her sacrifices. Perhaps it is this promise—the promise of a better life for the next generation—that is at the heart of the 21st Century American Dream. We can only hope.