Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Word for Word
Review by Patrick Thomas

Also see Patrick's reviews of RUR and Without You

Rudy Guerrero, Christian Jimenez, Ixtlán,
Carolina Morones, and Lisa Hori-Garcia

Photo by Robbie Sweeny
You see them in many major cities: men (and very occasionally women) standing outside a Home Depot or on a random street corner, or–in the staged version of Greg Sarris's short story Citizen, the latest production by Word for Word, now playing at Z Below, a grocery store in Santa Rosa. They are "day laborers," often undocumented immigrants seeking whatever work they can find: landscaping, construction, painting–whatever a crew chief or homeowner might need done. I imagine, however, that it's rare those who hire these workers spend much time thinking about the lives they lead and the challenges they face.

In Citizen, Sarris, director Gendell Hing-Hernández and his cast take us deep inside the world of one of these day laborers, Salvador (Christian Jimenez). But unlike most of the other men who rise at dawn to seek work for the day, Salvador is actually a U.S. citizen. Born in Santa Rosa, Salvador was taken back to Mexico when he was but a babe in arms, and had spent all his life there. But when his mother–who abandoned the family when Salvador was but two–dies, Salvador makes his way back to Santa Rosa to visit her grave.

Because of this dichotomy–a citizen (but with very minimal English) living among the undocumented–Citizen is a sort of fish out of water story. Or, perhaps more accurately, a story of a saltwater fish adapting to a freshwater environment.

Sarris's story tugs you ever deeper into Salvador's world and his struggle to make his way–not only as he settles back into the land of his birth, but also as he navigates out of adolescence into the adult world of getting a driver's license, Social Security card, and maybe even his own apartment and car. In the strange (to him) world of life in the U.S., Salvador is both a naif and a survivor, and it's fascinating to watch him as he makes his way toward a new life. Jimenez, who stepped into the role only two weeks prior to opening, plays Salvador with a sense of hesitancy and confidence that perfectly mirror his character's own struggles.

I've rarely been disappointed by Word for Word's productions. They are almost always imaginatively staged, lovingly performed, and intensely compelling. As I have mentioned in previous reviews of the company's work, one of my favorite things about Word for Word is how they open up a story, revealing aspects of an author's work I probably wouldn't have noticed by merely reading the story myself. As a reader alone with a story, you get only your point of view. With a Word for Word production, the director and each actor can bring their own take on a story, enriching the text with added context and nuance.

Citizen is one of the best productions ever from Word for Word. Director Hing-Hernández has discovered myriad ways to peel back the layers of the story and to translate the words on the page into a more visual, multi-dimensional world on the stage. Here, actors link arms to simulate the vineyard where Salvador gets one of his first jobs–and anyone who has seen rows of vines will immediately recognize how accurately portrayed they are. When Salvador enters a mini-mart to buy something to drink, the other performers, hidden behind the three rolling flats that compose the primary stage elements (scenic design is by Mikiko Uesugi), stretch out their arms with hands full of cans of Red Bull, soda, and 12-packs of beer.

Despite the hardships Salvador faces–the grasping, greedy, meth-addicted aunt he is living with and her sketchy friends, as well as the exhausting labor he must perform–Citizen is filled with tremendous humor and grace that often had the audience roaring with laughter. In one moment, the text describes how Salvador had to take two bus rides to a job–which is visualized by members of the cast bouncing along as they sit on a table doubling as bus seats, then quickly turning 180 degrees when the second bus ride is mentioned. In another hysterical moment, several of the cast portray mares in heat and a stallion pawing at the earth. But the biggest laugh may have come when Eldine (the aunt) delivers a line, then takes a long pause before delivering the next, which was "She paused for effect."

The cast clearly revel in their roles, and each brings something wonderfully droll or dramatic to their part. Ixtlán, who–like most of the cast–plays multiple roles, has a marvelously rubbery face and large, expressive eyes. L. Duarte is appropriately brittle as Aunt Eldine, and Carolina Morones brings a saucy flirtatiousness as the taco truck worker with a serious crush on Salvador.

If you've never seen a Word for Word production, you're missing one of the most compelling theatrical experiences the Bay Area has to offer. Citizen would be a perfect entry to their world of staged short stories.

Citizen runs through November 12, 2023, at Z Below, 450 Florida Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Wednesdays-Thursdays at 7:00 p.m., Fridays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. There is also a 3:00pm matinee on Saturday, April 22. Tickets are $75. For tickets and information, please visit or call 415-626-0453.