The playwrights Jocelyn Bioh and Martyna Majok have a bond, in life and in their work. “I feel like Martyna and I are these playwriting sisters in terms of the groups of people and the stories that we’re trying to uplift in our work,” said Bioh, speaking on the new episode of Variety’s Stagecraft podcast.
Listen to this week’s “Stagecraft” podcast below:
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Onstage, they both tell stories about people whose lives don’t often get a theatrical spotlight. Off stage, they attend each other’s opening night parties. And right now, they are each seeing new, long-delayed plays — “Sanctuary City” for Majok and “Nollywood Dreams” for Bioh — open Off Broadway at last.
The COVID shutdown halted both shows just as they were coming to life. “Sanctuary City” had played a handful of previews before it went dark, and “Nollywood Dreams” was a week away from starting performances. On Stagecraft, Bioh and Majok discussed returning to projects that the pandemic had forced them to let go.
A play that follows two undocumented young adults in Newark, “Sanctuary City” finally opened Sept. 21 — with the same cast, in the same theater, on the same set, and even with the same physical programs. “It was strange that people were like, ‘How does it feel to open?'” said Majok, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play “Cost of Living.” “I still feel like we haven’t opened, because I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop, I guess.”
Meanwhile, “Nollywood Dreams,” centering around a young woman in Lagos hoping to become a star in the Nigerian film industry, has begun rehearsals again and will start previews Oct. 21. On Stagecraft, Bioh described the sensation of returning to the theater after so long away. “When people walked into the space, it just kinda looked like the Rapture had happened,” she said. “Scripts were open, water bottles were still sitting there, pencils. Just everyone had disappeared.”
Both Majok, at work on developing projects including a new musical version of “The Great Gatsby” with Florence Welch, and Bioh, who’s adapting “Once on This Island” for Disney Plus, had other writing to keep them occupied during the pandemic. They both avoided thinking too much about the stage projects they’d seen paused.
“I hadn’t taken [the play] out of the drawer until I showed up at rehearsal, and oh, here’s my script printed out,” Majok said. “I don’t know if it’s just because I would have been too sad, but I didn’t f— with it. I just waited to see. Maybe I was guarding my heart as well, thinking: Maybe this isn’t going to happen, and I just can’t deal with the roller coaster of hope and disappointment again.”
“I’m actually afraid to reread the last draft that I had written,” Bioh said of “Nollywood Dreams.” “I’m a little afraid to know if this play even means anything anymore now.”
After the shutdown and everything else that occurred in the intervening months, Majok said “Sanctuary City” has taken on new resonance. “For me, it feels like the thing that I’m watching in the play is how people are caring for one another, particularly in a time and a place and circumstances where the country that they’re in does not necessarily want them to thrive,” she said. “I was always aware that that might be in the play, but it has come more to the surface now. When the characters in the play are kind to each other, I feel it more deeply in my heart and soul.”
To hear the full conversation, listen at the link above or download and subscribe to “Stagecraft” on podcast platforms including Apple Podcasts, Spotify and the Broadway Podcast Network. New episodes of “Stagecraft” are released every other week.
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