There is a new theater company in the Twin Cities, Stage North based at the newly renovated Capri Theater in North Minneapolis. They have chosen as their first production King of the Kosher Grocers a play written by a native of North Minneapolis Joe Minjares. The play is set in 1991 in the same neighborhood where it is now being performed. When I learned of this new theater company, where it was located, and what show they were opening with, I had an experience similar to what happened to me several times while attending the performance last weekend, I got a little misty eyed. We all lament the 18 months of shuttered theater, the performances we missed, and the great shows that closed early. As we go back, we reflect on the pandemic and all it took from us. Now 18 months later, it’s easy to forget in our excitement to be back in the audience, that the pandemic is not the only major thing that happened in the world or specifically in our city in the spring of 2020. Our city erupted after the murder of a black citizen by Minneapolis police officers. And so that we do not forget, let us mark that citizens name, George Floyd. I struggle at times as a middle aged white male theatre blogger to identify how to show my support without seeming to appropriate the burden of others. It is not my place to speak for people whose reality I cannot possibly really understand. I need to cede the floor to those who live it so that they can be heard. The only thing I can do is to try and boost their signal when they send it out if I can. There are many people, activists, advocates, and artists all trying to speak to what is wrong in our city and in our country, I look forward to the art that will come from them. This is a play that is about 30 years old, that speaks to some of the underlying issues that brought us to a city on fire. But the real message is about how we care for our community and it showcases a world that is real for some, will seem completely fake to others, but seems almost ideal to me.
The premise of King of the Kosher Grocers sounds like the set up to a joke that will get you canceled. a Jew, a Mexican, and an African-American… I take that from the press release, but you see what I mean. So let me lay it out in a different way. Izzy Silvers, an elderly jewish man, has been the owner of Silver’s Grocery. It’s the neighborhood store that still delivers phone orders to customers as it has for 50 years. Izzy has part-time help from Jamar Mooney a young black college student whose grandfather Elvis Mooney seems to also help out around the store. Elvis is basically just Izzy’s friend who takes deliveries to an old widow that lives nearby that he is a little sweet on. Another friend who brings Izzy fresh homemade tortillas to sell every morning is Joe Chavez who also thinks nothing of making the odd delivery for Izzy as needed. The conflict comes into the story in the form of a city electrical inspector who has issued a 30 day warning of repairs that need to be made to the building or it could be shut down. The thing about this play is it isn’t about the conflict. The play is about the community that we are witness to. It’s about the way a Jew, a Mexican, and an African American co-exist as a community and as friends. It’s about the benefits of continuity but also about change and the renewal that can come from bringing in new blood as represented by Jamal and his friend Billy. The conflict comes from the city inspector but the solution to that also comes from the city. The play isn’t about identifying the villain, even if superficially there is one. It’s focus is on showing us what works. How a neighborhood can remain a neighborhood, how people can be important to each other when they simply think of them as people and not as a skin color. It doesn’t ignore the cultural differences it just treats them as things that make us different and more interesting to each other. Even the resolution to the conflict comes through communicating with respect. Talking person to person and compromise.
It all sounds kind of heavy doesn’t it? And yet it isn’t. It’s a comedy and like most really good comedy the laughs come not from punchlines but from character. I mentioned getting misty eyed, but it was the good kind. This is an uplifting play that makes you long for a neighborhood like this. For a Grocery store where three old friends spend their days reminiscing about the old days. A place where they know the people in the neighborhood they run them their groceries and notice if they haven’t called in at their usual time. A place where as an old man is reaching the end, there is a place for a young man to come in and carry on these practices that have created and nurtured this community. I hope that people who are now part of the neighborhood where this takes place come to the theater. I hope they can see something in it that they recognize or if they can’t that they see it as an example of something to strive for. Minjares has written a play that speaks to so many things while hardly seeming to acknowledge them. It does what we should all strive to do in life, model the actions and behaviors we want to see. It doesn’t talk about the problems with society that led to the outraged protest and howls of anger and despair in the spring of 2020. It models what our neighborhoods should be. People of all races and religious backgrounds, old and young all caring for and respecting each other.
The cast was all excellent. Anchored, in the performance I saw, by Michael Tezla as Izzy and James A. Williams as Elvis who establish from their first exchanges the familiarity of old friends. The third character Joe is usually played by the author of the work Joe Minjares, sadly Joe was hospitalized that weekend but I’m told he will be fine and should return to the play later in the week. Until then, the role was being played by Pedro Bayon who stepped in at a moments notice and performs on stage with script in hand. From what I could see the script was there just in case as he seemed to have the lines down, and having performed the role previously, knew the character. He did a fantastic job and if we hadn’t been informed of the substitution I probably wouldn’t have even realized it. All three of these veteran actors are shining examples of what experience and a lifetime of practicing a craft can result in. There’s never a false moment on stage between the three of them, even with one of the trio jumping in at a moments notice. They bring an authenticity to the characters that prevents them from simply being reduced to a Jew, a Mexican, and an African American who walk into a grocery store. Like their characters in the play one hopes they are modeling what they have learned for the younger performers in the show Ian McCarthy as Jamar, and Domino D’Lorion as Billy. In act one McCarthy’s Jamar is little more than a background character. In Act two he and D’Lorion take on a more prominent role, almost as if this is Act one for their characters and the final act for the older characters. Both McCarthy and D’Lorion bring an energy to their roles that is in contrast to the older characters but not in conflict with them and both are perfect in their roles.
King of the Kosher Grocers is directed by Peter Moore the Artistic Director of Stage North clearly with an eye to welcoming the community into their neighborhood theater. It is an excellent choice to launch their inaugural theater season with and I hope they connect with their neighbors. This is a play that everyone can relate to in some way and the production is full of warmth and compassion and genuine humor. They have certainly priced it to do so, tickets are $20 ($10 if you’re under 30 years of age). For more information and to purchase tickets go to http://stagenorthmpls.org. The production runs through November 7th 2021.