Like a good New York City supermarket that has everything its neighborhood needs, a strong play like Cori Thomas’ Citizens Market serves up multi-layered characters and their captivating personal stories. Full of laughter and life, this world premiere celebrates an ever-shifting and eclectic America that is at once diverse and reflects often painful experiences.
The latest new play developed at City Theatre, directed by Reginald L. Douglas, runs through March 25 on the main stage in the South Side. Playwright Thomas is a rising playwright who workshopped the piece about “finding home” in her second stint at City. She considers her own immigrant parents among her inspirations. The program describes the script development process with a nod to the invaluable role of dramaturg for new works. Clare Drobot, as dramaturg and director of New Play Development at City, contributed greatly to getting this work ready for its debut.
Citizens Market is a timely close-up of the life of new Americans–hopeful, brave immigrants who have come here for brighter futures. The play asks if today’s immigrants are invited to genuinely belong or if such hopes should be expected to be dashed during the long and expensive process of “getting legal” by ICE Raids and the threat of deportation.
The Super Union is one of those family Manhattan markets where the languages and accents are as diverse as the food and products on sale. Bigger than a bodega, such larger independent stores must compete with national brand stores throughout the five boroughs.
The 119th Street store was created on City’s stage by the incomparable Tony Ferrieri. There is no distraction by customers as the action is cleverly set when shoppers aren’t in the store, so the audience can focus on Thomas’ lovely characters.
Director Douglas efficiently moves five actors from the fullest and to most intimate scenes on Ferrieri’s realistic set, somewhat frozen in an earlier decade. Ferrieri fills the entire proscenium stage with details including every imaginable item, from cases of coffee stacked at the back wall to fresh produce displayed downstage. Three levels contain a retro manager’s office, stocked store aisles, working check-out stations, equipped staff break room, and the store facade, complete a door and some windows with hand-painted grocery signs.
Thomas’s script teems with the realities for immigrants who become established business owners like long-time store manager Jesus and newcomers like Akosua, recommended by her new co-worker Ciata for her intelligence and caring nature.
Thomas quickly establishes her characters’ situations. One month in, Akosua and Ciata talk about men over lunch. “Find one who doesn’t smoke,” Ciata advices, recalling a past love who “smoked more than Bob Marley AND the Wailers.” And we learn how a romantic blunder contributed to Akosua leaving home.
Their boss was not born in the US, having come from El Salvador as a teenager. Akosua observes, “It seems to me that here in America, no one is really from here.” Akosua ventures, “When is the day that you know actually what it is that you are doing here?”
The older couple, Bogdan and Mofina, still struggle to be happy as some among the most vulnerable. But still, Bogdan blusters optimistically: “We are American now. This is a country of hopes and dreams and that is why we came here.”
Thomas accurately explores typical language challenges as Jesus inappropriately speaks to Akosua using some Spanish words and asks Akosua if he can just use the English version of his new employee’s name rather then deal with learning to pronounce it.
Their dreams? Jesus aims to someday own the store, Ciata to earn enough to send money back home, and Akosua to save for tuition. Bogdan and Mofina just want to survive with some food and shelter. All share a hope to avoid complications with immigration. No one seems immune from being “sent back”, a threat hanging over their insular world.
Ngozi Anyanwu is endearing as the soft-spoken Akosua with her fresh green card. We cheer for her as she gains confidence and becomes the counselor to her new-found family members far from her home in Ghana.
Market manager Jesus is drawn as alternately brash and caring by the likable Juan Francisco Villa. Shamika Cotton is the strong and resilient Ciata, a teacher in her native Sierra Leone who now finds solace over personal tragedy in her store job. Cotton conveys strength born from grief in one of the play’s most moving moments even as she and Jesus consider a close personal relationship.
Pittsburgh veteran actor Jeff Howell is the 50-something Bogdan whose appears older. He’s had a hard journey from a career as civil engineer in Romania to a struggling near-homeless person in New York. The versatile Ann Talman also returns to City as his spunky wife Morfina and also as a new Irish market employee. Her physicality as Morfina includes very accurate navigation of the store stairs by her apparently arthritic legs.
Karen Perry’s costumes aptly suggest the status of each characters means and origins. Lighting by Andrew David Ostrowski is appropriately full for action in the store and intimate for the most personally impactful moments. Well-placed sound by Zachary Beattie Brown supports the setting and action with both music and effects. Patti Kelly, City’s production stage manager, runs the smooth show.
For all the laughter and tears sprinkled throughout Citizens Market, there’s no sugar coating here. Thomas reminds us that all that Americans are never “from here”–regardless how long your family has “been here”. She draws us in so that by the time we face the characters most troubling circumstances, we care about the characters.
Sure, a production of Citizens Market could be even grittier and event more gripping than City’s premiere, but it’s exciting to know Thomas’ play now will find its legs with room to grow.
Citizens Market runs 100 well-aced minutes with no intermission. The show is on stage through March 25 with special discounts and events listed online. With the continuation of its season-long community engagement initiative, City Connects, the company invites patrons to bring donations of toiletries throughout the run to benefit clients of Jewish Family & Community Services Immigrant Services and Refugee Resettlement Program.