queens features women in basement discussing American promise, failure
If there is work out there that inspires bloodlust, it is probably Martyna Majok’s queens, currently running at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theater through March 25. As an intimate, rooftop space for emerging playwrights and directors, the Claire Tow could not be a more perfect fit for Majok and Director Danya Taymor, who forged some kind of brutal weapon in three acts.
Plays about immigration and the issues of modern America seem to be in vogue this season, considering the current political environment. Lincoln Center Theater especially seems to be taking cues from the rhetorical atmosphere.
Ayad Akhtar’s Junk, which ran in the Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater from October 2017 to January 2018, was an overinflated, Shakespeare-sized lesson on the devotion to money. Dominique Morrisseau’s Pipeline, which ran last year at its smaller off-Broadway space, the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, tried to tackle issues of the school-to-prison pipeline via the eyes of a teacher and her son.
Where these plays faltered, whether from being too ambitious or having too thin a skeleton, queens seems to have taken up the mantle by becoming the hard lesson that America needs to learn.
Majok, an immigrant herself, seems to be one of the most properly empathetic voices in the stories of immigrants in drama, especially regarding immigrant women. Her previous works are less designed to skewer supposed liberality and more to create nuanced portraits of American lives that are worryingly seen as very un-American.
As a new work, queens is both much longer and much fleshier than Cost of Living, a Majok piece examining the lives of people with disabilities — much to her benefit. She is definitely a writer who needs narrative space in order to envision microcosms that, for the people living in them, are most certainly not microcosms.
The “queens” in question refers to both the borough that the story takes place in and the women that populate the world. The characters are most certainly not travelers from a distant land, but more like queens who have lost their kingdoms.
While America is a refuge for some people, it offers a life that is much harder than promised and so much crueler than it makes itself out to be.
For women like Inna, played by Sarah Tolan-Mee, life in America is enticing until it becomes clear that some newcomers are just objects to be captured like prisoners in some long, bloodless war that goes unnoticed.
For others like Aamani, performed by Nadine Malouf, it is a chance for freedom from the chains of the past. However, for those like Polish immigrant Renia, played splendidly by Ana Reeder, America really is just a place to become something more than what they were back in Europe.
Majok seems to suggest that the likes of Renia are the most vulnerable. The promise of America is beautiful but one that only few ever seem to be granted.
The basement that queens takes place in is populated by the nicotine-flavored memories of those who came before, both seen and unseen.
Their presence comes and goes in the form of relics, alcohol, decades-long promises and consequences of betrayal.
Everyone has a story, but some of those stories do not need to be spoken. All the audience is granted are snippets and suggestions, some of which are just enough to paint a full picture while others are mere fragments of a feeling.
No one needs to know Renia’s full story to feel the harsh blows of her pain with every untranslated word.
The all-star design team, more than creates the world Majok has written. The sound design by Stowe Nelson swings back and forth between the harsh grind of the subway and luscious transitional music between scenes, to stunning effect.
Laura Jellinek, master of the puzzle-piece set, painted a mural of birds behind the cast as if their own avian spirits are almost home for the winter. Light Designer Matt Frey has gladly taken the sorrows and hopes of these women and formed them into eerie, memorable colors.
While a few narrative bumps occasionally stifle queens, the work as a whole feels like more than a memorial to all the women lost to the system.
Two hours and 45 minutes is not enough to contain all the lost Christmases and birthdays stuck inside a cold basement. There is warmth, liquor and sisterhood sewn deeply into every second chance promised then snatched away.