Despite what the USCIS’s new mission statement asserts, the United States remains a nation of immigrants. It’s easy for those whose families have been here more than a generation to forget that fact; not so easy for those who have migrated themselves, or whose parents were immigrants. Such folks, playwright Cori Thomas suggests in her new play Citizens Market, share an experience of displacement, disorientation, and discrimination that organically leads them to form subcommunities of interest and solidarity.
In Thomas’s play, the site of that community building is a grocery market in New York City, imagined by City Theatre scenic designer Tony Ferrieri to look something like one of those small independent markets that line Penn Ave in the Strip (complete with dingy linoleum tiles on the floor, crowded aisles, and stacks of unopened cartons blocking some of the shelves). The store caters to a multicultural (and apparently economically diverse) clientele, signalled by handpainted butcher paper advertisements on the glass windows for products ranging from carrots, organic kale, and quinoa to mangos, catfish, La Preferida hominy, queso fresco, and (in a de rigeur bit of Pittsburgh pandering) “Homemade Pierogi.” The United Nations of products is mirrored in the store’s staff: manager Jesus (Juan Francisco Villa) is an immigrant from El Salvador, his employees Ciata (Shamika Cotton) and Akosua (Ngozi Anyanwu) are from Sierra Leone and Ghana, respectively, and Bogdan (Jeff Howell) and Morfina (Ann Talman), an elderly married couple working as volunteers at the market, are from Romania.
The play follows these characters as they navigate the challenges of becoming Americans. Akosua is the newest arrival, a green-card lottery winner who has aspirations to go to college and become a social worker. She gets a job at the market on the recommendation of her housemate, Ciata, who has been in the country longer and has had more time to adjust to life away from her homeland. Ciata’s recommendation holds a bit more weight because Jesus – who has been in the US for over twenty years and has worked his way into financial success – is not-so-secretly enamored of her. These three young immigrants from the developing world are foiled, in the play, by Bogdan and Morfina, white Eastern European immigrants who have failed at the American dream and find themselves destitute, homeless, and in a state of constant, bitter, and very loud recrimination against each other.
Crisis strikes this group of American dreamers when the INS gets a tip that Jesus is undocumented. As they rally to support and help him, the characters start to form a makeshift family, sharing their troubles and histories and helping each other in various ways, many of which take the play into sitcom territory. At one point, for example, Akosua demonstrates her aptitude for social work by holding an impromptu (and improbably successful) marriage counseling session for Bogdan and Morfina; at another, Morfina miraculously whips up a batch of her irresistible strudel to sell to raise money for Jesus’s defense lawyer. But while a lot (maybe too much) happens in this play – among other things, a character dies suddenly, another magically overcomes a fear of public speaking, others fall in (or back in) love – Citizens Market is less a plot-driven play than an attempt to flesh out the range of experiences and challenges faced by immigrants, to underline the sacrifices they make in their pursuit of the opportunities a life in the United States has to offer, and to counter misconceptions of immigrants as freeloaders or job-stealers.
For a play that seems interested in debunking stereotypes, Citizens Market traffics in several, among them “the hard working economic refugee from Latin America” (who even tells us that he comes from a long line of proud, hardworking, Latin American men); “the African immigrant with a PhD who works at a job for which she’s vastly overqualified”; and, perhaps most stereotypical of all, “the loud, entitled white man whose only emotion is anger”. These check-the-box characteristics feel at cross-purposes with the play’s larger aim of fleshing out the immigrant experience with greater complexity and empathy (although they do often achieve the goal of provoking laughter).
Director Reginald Douglas has assembled a strong group of actors, but at times they seem to be in different plays. Howell and Talman are mostly performing in the register of TV sitcom, while the formidable Anyanwu and the emotionally vulnerable Cotton could be in a Chekhov play, with Villa somewhere in between. Given that many of the play’s events have a kind of “madcap” quality, it might have been better served by a more enthusiastic embrace of both the sitcom acting style and the “quick cut” pace that marks such entertainment. This is especially true given the play’s unexpected happy ending, in which the action leaps seven years into the future and leaves a million questions unanswered, chief among them whether it represents a possibly real outcome for these characters, or merely a wishful, fantasy prefiguration of a post-Trump America.