Review: In Young People’s Theatre’s Last Stop on Market Street, a Boy Named CJ Learns About Life and Friendship

Last Stop on Market Street, now being staged by Young People’s Theatre of Chicago, is a children’s story with lively music and song and dance performed by six talented actors. The play also carries messages about life, which may or may not come across to the youngest members of the audience.

Last Stop on Market Street is co-directed by Tuesdai B. Perry and Randy White, artistic director. The play is adapted by Cheryl L. West from Matt de la Pena’s award-winning book of the same name. The original score is by Lamont Dozier and Paris Ray Dozier.

As the play opens, CJ (Aja Singletary) has just arrived at the city home of his grandmother Nana (Jenece Upton). His parents have apparently shipped him off because they have work obligations to take care of, but CJ isn’t happy about it. Singletary plays CJ as a realistic boy with realistic boy ideas about how he wants to live his life (I have four grandsons so I’ve met boys like CJ before.) He’s even less happy when Nana informs him that he’s not going to spend all his time watching videos on his tablet or playing games on his phone. We’re going to see the real world tomorrow, she promises him, as she takes his devices and puts them away. 

At Nana's house: Jenece Upton as Nana and Aya Singletary as CJ. Photo by Marisa Fee Photography.

The next day, Nana and a grumpy CJ head out to the bus stop to see the city; their destination is a surprise, Nana says. When CJ asks why they can’t just go in a car, Nana tells him she doesn’t have a car and she doesn’t need one because the bus stops nearby and takes her wherever she needs to go. The bus arrives (carried on stage by crew members) and Nana and CJ get on and pay their fare. The driver Mr. Dennis (Fabian Guerrero) makes the bus hum and you would swear the engine is running.

CJ isn’t happy about this at first and finds the bus scary. But soon he’s curious about the people he meets on the bus, like Madame Butterfly (Anna Martin), who gives CJ her jar of butterfly pupas,, and Tatted Man (Richaun Stewart). 

When Mr Dennis calls out “Last stop on Market Street,” Nana and CJ get off in a dingy city neighborhood. CJ is worried. Don’t worry, Nana says, your surprise is that we’re going to a soup kitchen where we’ll help people who don’t always get a meal. And CJ is surprised to learn that some of these people don’t even have a home.

Ania Martin as Mme. Butterfly, center, with, from left, Jenece Upton as Nana, Aya Singletary as CJ and Fabian Guerrero as Mr. Dennis. Photo by Marisa Fee Photography

As part of his experiences in this neighborhood, CJ learns that it’s fun to help people. He also makes new friends, including Grandma Posey and JoJo (Martin and Maya Lou Hlava), who keep everything they own piled in a shopping cart, Mr. Vernon (Stewart), a man who has lost his sight, and wheelchair-bound Mr. Chow (Guerrero).

CJ’s new experiences are punctuated with joyful song and dance numbers, choreographed by codirector Perry. Two of the best songs are “Welcome to the Neighborhood” and “Dance to the Beat of Life.” Cameron Tragesser is music director with sound design by Kurt Ottinger.

The directors do an admirable job of staging this production, using changeable wall panels to create different scenes. Set design is by Shayna Patel and lighting by Kevin Rechner. Costumes are by Janelle Smith and props by Nicolas Bartleson. Mia Maccarello is stage manager.

Most of the actors, like Upton as Nana and Guerrero as the bus driver, are experienced Chicago performers. Singletary does a fine job as CJ too, although it’s hard to believe he’s only 7 years old. (Perhaps the script can be adjusted to make him 11 or 12, especially since 7-year-olds don’t usually have electronic devices.) Jojo, played by Hlava, expresses joy as CJ’s new friend. Martin plays Mme. Butterfly with panache. Richaun Stewart, in his Chicago theater debut, displays prodigious ability in song, dance and acrobatic movement. He’s a new college grad (Ball State University, 2023) and surely has a bright theater future. 

Richaun Stewart as the Tatted Man. Photo by Marisa Fee Photography.

The play originated as a co-commission by Chicago Children’s Theatre, which staged it in 2018, and Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis.

Last Stop on Market Street by Young People's Theatre of Chicago continues at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N.Lincoln Ave., through June 2. Running time is about one hour with no intermission. The play is recommended for ages 4 up. Buy your tickets online for $19 (children under 12) or $25—or by phoning 773-$04-7336.

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.