The Women’s Voices Theater Festival: ‘Queens Girl in the World’ at Theater J

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Find my place in the world is a major question at the center of Queens Girl in the World now playing at Theater J. It is a beautifully engaging, semi-autobiographical personal and political memory play written by multiple Helen Hayes Award nominee Caleen Sinnette Jennings. The writing is poetic gold with feelings front and center. 

Dawn Ursula. Photo by Teresa Wood.
Dawn Ursula. Photo by Teresa Wood.

This Theater J world premiere of Queens Girl in the World is a part of the on-going Women’s Voices Theater Festival. It is also part of Theater J’s Locally Grown: Community Supported Art Initiative.

Queens Girl focuses upon the 12 year old African American Jacqueline Marie Butler, on her personal journey through the years 1962-1965, as she was in 7th, 8th, and 9th grades. Butler is maturing into young womanhood. Her Queens, New York community begins to whirl becoming off-balanced, and the Civil Rights movement stirs with a huge impact upon her life and that of her family.

With a skilled infectious comic touch and insightful warm dramatic direction by Eleanor Holdridge and the inspired, multi-character performance from Helen Hayes Award recipient Dawn Ursula, the one-woman Queens Girl is a deeply charged “what is my identity” narrative during a time of social change.

Ursula moves with ease through convincing dramatic turns and equally terrific comic performance in the many character she portrays.   She can be hilariously shocked at the idea of sex or sober in disbelief at horrific events happening in the world. Beyond Jacqueline Marie Butler, the characters are female and male; Black and White; young and old; parents, friends, neighbors, and teachers.

Over the course of the play, the Butler character is moved by her parents from a Queens neighborhood public school, reading Nancy Drew mysteries, to a progressive school based in Greenwich Village reading Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf and the New York Times. The Greenwich Village school is full of distinctive teachers with a sea of White and Jewish students with only a very few Black students. The Butler character struggles with being “afraid to be me” as she begins to come to terms with her own identity. She begins to realize she is “not like them” and then asks if she is “two me’s”; one a Manhattan me and another a Queens me.

With Queens Girls we learn of not only Southern racism but of Northern racism as well. For instance, the two-parent, professional-class Butler family (her father a Doctor) was the first Black family in the East Elmsford neighborhood. Immediately, there was “white flight.” With Queens Girl the audience comes in close contact with early 1960’s events and leaders, including President John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, James Baldwin, and Malcom X, and SNCC to name a few.

What gives Queens Girl such sting and humor is the language written by Caleen Sinnette Jennings. Using a word like taffeta to describe a mother’s voice; describing numbness from being molested as “having lost the will to pee”; the humor of “for the first time in my life, I am the better dancer”; the sadness of learning an old friend “is going South” because she is pregnant;  the sensual nature of skin colors described as “midnight without a star in the sky”, the political differences between “relaxed and natural hair” or impact of thinking “I been a white girl all this time?” are just a few.

The artistic and technical details of Queens Girl are lovely and true. The Theater J set and projections designed by Ruthmarie Tenorio has a front and center a door and stoop representing 2933 Erickson Street, in Queens. There are a milk box, transistor radio and a street light. It is all we need to become part of Queens Girl world.

Dawn Ursula in Caleen Sinnette Jennings' 'Queens Girl in the World' at Theater J. Photo by Teresa Wood.
Dawn Ursula. Photo by Teresa Wood.

David Lamont Wilson’s sound design is built around city noises and musical selections such as “You Better Shop Around,” “You’ve Really Got a Hold of Me,” “Sincerely,” and “Heatwave.” For Act I Ivana Stack dressed Ursula in a purple dress, Peter Pan collar and Mary Jane shoes with socks. In Act II Ursula had added a white sweater, no socks and wore white gloves in one scene; all chosen with meaning andeffect.

Queens Girl in the World is a rewarding, absorbing work about identify, self-discovery and the mysteries of growing-up during a time of major social change in America. It will be especially engaging for audiences eager and ready to be moved by an astute voice, a discerning story with a well-accomplished production. It is no academic educational exercise, but a real, authentic experience to be savored. The final scene is simply magical.

At the performance I took in, the audience gave the production a well-deserved, loud, long, standing-ovation. I can only wonder and wish for a second installment of Queens Girl in the World to see what more is in store for character Jacqueline Marie Butler and the world she grew to live in.

Running Time: 1 hour and 50 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

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Queens Girl in the World plays through July 5, 2015 at Theater J at The Washington DCJCC’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater – 1529 16th Street, NW, (16th and Q Streets), in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (800) 494-8497, or purchase them online.

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Playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings. Photo by Teresa Woods.
Playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Note: I was struck by these comments from Playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings

“Out of a concern that theatre and the classroom are the last places where human beings who are very different from one another get the opportunity to be exposed to each other’s stories and maybe form personal connections that are based on a deeper understanding.

My concern is that if we stop talking to one another, we’re in bigger trouble than we’re already in. Our opportunities for live interaction are getting more and more limited. I’m afraid we’re minimizing or not valuing or not creating opportunities to be live in spaces where we have a shared experience.”

Note: Here is some information about East Elmhurst, Queens. 

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