CitySpeaks: Finding Home with JFCS Pittsburgh

March 19th, 2018 / Posted in Citizens Market, CitySpeaks, Home Page Latest News, News & Press

By Clare Drobot (Director of New Play Development)
& Cori Thomas (Playwright of Citizens Market)

City Theatre, located on Pittsburgh’s South Side is currently producing the world premiere of Cori Thomas’ play Citizens Market directed by Reginald L. Douglas. The play follows five workers in a small neighborhood grocery store on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and launches with the interview of Akosua, newly arrived from Ghana and looking to find her footing.

At its core, Citizens Market is about discovering one’s voice in a new home. As we meet the employees of Super Union, we gradually learn about the other character’s individual journeys to America. They come from Sierra Leone, El Salvador and Romania, for different reasons and with different levels of acclimation.

In concert with City Theatre’s production, the company is highlighting the work of Jewish Family and Community Services’ Refugee and Immigrant Services. Through this partnership, playwright Cori Thomas, and director of new play development, Clare Drobot, accompanied Leslie Aizenman, the program’s director, to meet with JFCS clients Damu and Jean Luc in their South Hills home.

Driving up the winding road to their apartment, Aizeman shared the couple’s background. They had arrived in Pittsburgh from the Kakuma Refugee Camp located in Northwestern Kenya. Both Damu and Jean Luc were originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, but were forced to leave during the years of civil unrest.

Damu was born in 1990 and left Congo for Kenya at the age of ten. As Damu shared, “life there, it was difficult, because no food, no water, everything, and it’s too hot. Life here, it is too good to me, because of how I was living there.”

Damu works at Allegheny General Hospital in housekeeping and Jean Luc as a maintenance worker in the development where the couple lives with their two children. Life for Damu revolves around job and family. “I’m working at night. My husband is working in the morning and my kids they are going to school.”

Damu, Cori Thomas, Jean Luc, JFCS

From left to right: Damu, Cori, and Jean Luc.

Playwright Thomas, who is Liberian-American, and Jean Luc traded conversation in French, which she had learned while living in Cameroon and Geneva, Switzerland as a child. As Jean Luc explained, French was his first language, “my kindergarten, up to high school was in French.” He learned English upon arriving in Kenya.

Jean Luc was born in Bukavu, a Congolese city on Lake Kivu, and grew up there with frequent visits to his grandfather’s village outside of town. His father was a businessman, who sold precious minerals, and was killed when Jean Luc was a teenager. After the murder, his family fled to Kenya, although his mother had since returned to Congo.

The pair met in the refugee camp in Kenya in 2007. As Damu described, “we were just neighbors, living on the opposite sides [of the camp] then we went to the same school.” The pair were married and, soon after, Damu had their first child. When asked if they were married in the camp, Damu laughed, explaining there was no need for ceremony in Kakuma, but here “you’re supposed to go to the Church or the court, that’s not marriage. Marriage is between two people.”

JFCS assisted the couple to resettle to the US in 2015. The pair described their move to Pittsburgh saying, “we arrived at night. It was May. We wake up, we don’t see anybody outside. In Africa, everybody is outside.” But within four months it began to feel like home.

And while Pittsburgh may feel like home, they have little time for getting to know the town outside of work. As Damu describes, “To me, I don’t have any favorite place [in Pittsburgh], because when I come home from work, I do sleep in the morning. Because I work in the night, so I don’t have time and I don’t have a car to go.”

Jean Luc chimed in, “we have only time for some appointments. We don’t have time for nothing. We Congolese, if you see four people, five people who are together, it’s going to be a problem. I like the way American people are living. I am in my place, me and my kids and my wife and that’s it. But we Africans, everyone wants to come over, even without an appointment!”

It was a moment of shared laughter in a long conversation that ranged from discussing cultural differences to where to get African food products in Pittsburgh, as well as covering hopes and dreams. Damu and Jean Luc’s journey shares many touch points with the characters of Citizens Market and during the production run, the theater will collect donations of toiletries to support newly arrived JFCS clients.

As the discussion continued, it grew to be four people sitting around a living room, less an interview and more a conversation—a moment to get to know someone new and trade stories. In our current world, it feels important to do just that and to celebrate the narrative of couples like Damu and Jean Luc.

We are a country of immigrants and a heroine or hero for any story can hail from Pittsburgh, Congo, or any point in between.

There are only seven more chances to catch Cori’s play, Citizens Market, on City Theatre’s Main Stage. Get your tickets here!