Sophia Romma, a talented Russian Jewish poet, playwright and academic, divides her time between New York and Moscow and has been critically acclaimed in both world capitals.
But in an interview, the 33-year-old Romma, whose new drama, “Absolute Clarity,” is at the Players Theater on MacDougal Street until Feb. 25, said the seemingly glamorous life of a peripatetic immigrant writer is in reality “extremely dislocating.” She said that the immigrant “is an altered soul who never really belongs. You lose your roots, but you never become fully American.”
When she is in Moscow, Romma faces intermittent harassment from local police, she says, who stop her on the streets to ask for documents because of her Semitic appearance. In multi-ethnic New York, by contrast, she feels free and unencumbered, but is often depressed by what she calls “the frigid isolation of this city. I often feel that I can slip through the cracks in New York City in a second. So it turns out I don’t fit anywhere.”
Romma’s four previous plays focused on the alienating quality of immigrant life as experienced by disparate groups, including Russian Jews, Latinos and gypsies. Her latest play, though, seeks to lay claim to the soul of New York. It is an enjoyable absurdist romp through the downtown New York cultural and artistic scene, featuring a highly neurotic, native-born American teenage heroine and a cast of characters personifying a stew of New York ethnicities. Romma has a wonderful ear for language, accent and expression of cultural distinctiveness. And she wrote all of the jazzy, hip-hop music in the play, which is itself a tour de force.
Romma, a slight, curly-haired woman with an easy informality, was born in Moscow as Sophia Murashkovsky and immigrated with her parents to New York in 1979 at the age of 6. Her mother, a microbiologist, and father an engineer, worked as a cleaning lady and taxi driver respectively, eventually moving to Port Washington, L.I., and opening a deli in Great Neck.
Romma was largely raised by her grandmother, who made sure she spoke fluent Russian and read the Russian classics. A younger sister, Anastasia, died four years ago at the age of 19, and her life and tragic death are a major motif of Romma’s poetry, which she began writing when she was 12.
After graduating from Port Washington High School, Romma won a scholarship to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts Dramatic Writing program, going on to earn a master’s in fine arts. A professor turned her on to the famed La MaMa Theater, which has produced three of her plays. She is also the screenwriter of the film “Poor Liza,” a love story set in 19th-century Russia which was directed by Slava Tsukerman, another Russian-Jewish expatriate who made the memorably psychedelic and brainy film, “Liquid Sky,” back in the 1980’s. The English-language film, which starred Ben Gazzara and Lee Grant and was filmed in Moscow, was hailed in Russia and won first prize in the St. Petersburg Film Festival, but never found a way into commercial release in the U.S.
A single mother with a 5-year-old child, Romma pays the bills by teaching American literature at Touro College and running a screenwriting workshop at the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center.
When in Moscow, she maintains a close involvement in the Gorki Literary Institute, from which she recently received a doctorate. Romma is turned off by the glitzy, nouveau riche mentality overtaking Moscow but said she appreciates the remaining Russian intelligentsia, and that “you can just drop in on people spontaneously, although it’s a good idea to bring a honey cake along.”
Romma said she uses the names “Murashkovsky” and “Romma” interchangeably in authoring her plays, and asserted that she is “very proud” of her Jewish identity, “never forgetting that my family left Moscow because of anti-Semitism” and that she still experiences such treatment in cities like Paris and Prague. “It turns out there are a lot of places in the world where Jews aren’t very beloved,” she said.
For all of her artistic success, Romma describes herself as “poor as a church mouse, which is a serious concern because of my child. What I would like to do now is to figure out a way to make a living doing what I love to do.”