By Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant
A bright young woman from Ghana joins an eclectic group of immigrants when she takes a job as a cashier at the Super Union grocery store in Manhattan’s Upper West Side in “Citizens Market,” a world premiere play by Cori Thomas.
Soon after arriving in America, Akosua AKA Sunday (Ngozi Anyanwu) applies for a job at small supermarket. Jesus (Juan Francisco Villa) hires her, based on the recommendation of Sunday’s roommate, Ciata (Shamika Cotton). Meanwhile, a cantankerous couple, Bogdan (Jeff Howell) and Morfina (Ann Talman), cause a fracas on the street outside the store.
In an esoteric pact with a nearby church (Senior Job Program?), Bogdan and Morfina are soon stocking shelves at the store in exchange for bread and other groceries.
The lives of the Super Union employees become entangled. Jesus – mostly pronounced “Hey Zeus” – has a thing for Ciata. Sunday is fighting her fear of public speaking – stemming from an incident with a man in her village. And Bogdan and Morfina can’t stop bickering – they are George and Martha of Romania (no one ever expects an Edward Albee joke).
While the play veers off in several directions, the characters continue to come together. They are “there” for each other. E. M. Forster’s words, “Only Connect!” reverberate in the hapless lives of the Super Union employees. Their bond is strong (they have a super union!).
The cast is superb.
Sunday is the moral center of the play. It’s easy to root for the shy, foreign girl who finds her inner strength. Imagine creating a new life for yourself in a completely new country – in another language no less. Anyanwu is a joyous Sunday. She shines in the role.
Cotton’s Ciata is delightful. She is the stronger woman of the two main character. She is charismatic and charming as well.
Villa does a fine job as Jesus. His character starts out cocky and self-assured and soon his hidden vulnerability rises to the forefront.
Howell and Talman steal the show as the quarreling couple. Howell is having a marvelous year. He’s fresh from a hilarious performance in “A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum” and now he’s making audiences laugh across the river.
It’s great to see Talman on the City Theatre stage. The actress has been on numerous television shows and worked on and off Broadway for years (she even starred opposite Elizabeth Taylor in “The Little Foxes”), but is originally from the area (USC).
The play moves fast at a quick ninety minutes – no intermission. Kudos to director Reg Douglas for keeping the show moving briskly.
The premiere play stumbles in a few small ways. It doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test: When Sunday and Ciata chat in the breakroom, they only talk about the men in and out of their lives. Also, there’s a happy ending that seems tacked on. It feels forced and unearned. It raises more questions than it answered. That said, you’ll still cheer for Sunday and her accomplishments. There’s wonderful symmetry between the opening scene and the final one.
The tenuous relationship the U.S.A. has with its immigrant population could be explored even more here, and – with a few tweaks – turn “Citizens Market” from a cute, little play into an important political commentary.
P.S. Those are hot right now. See: “Hamilton.”
If you can ignore a few minor quibbles, you’ll have an enjoyable time at “Citizens Market.” Grab your shopping cart and browse the aisles. It’s the most fun you’ll ever have in a grocery store.
“Citizens Market” runs until March 25 at the City Theatre, 1300 Bingham Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15203
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