Any doubts about the future of the American Theatre were put firmly to rest on Labor Day Weekend, when more than 60 DC-area companies presented excerpts from some of their newest plays at The Kennedy Center’s 16th annual Page-to-Stage Festival.
Some of the plays — such as Queens Girl in Africa, presented by Mosaic Theater Company of DC — were so new that changes were still being made just hours before the reading took place.
That didn’t seem to faze Erika Rose, the Helen Hayes Award-winner who portrayed more than half a dozen roles in a 90-minute excerpt from the play. Her reading, incorporating a wide range of voice levels, dialects, gestures, and posture, produced a standing ovation at the end.
The play is a continuation of the coming-of-age story of Queens Girl in the World, the saga of Jacqueline Marie Butler who, at age 12, is plucked from the comfortable world of a Queens public school and tossed into the electric atmosphere of a private school in Manhattan.
In this sequel, Jackie, now 15, is wrenched from the Elizabeth Irwin High School — the bastion of ‘progressive education’ in New York (meaning that it is mostly Jewish, slightly Black, and a little bit left wing, largely because it is located in the heart of Greenwich Village) — and forced to move to Nigeria, a country about which she knows and cares nothing. Her father, a disaffected Caribbean-American doctor, will be joining the staff of a new all-African hospital.
The year is 1965. The Beatles have arrived and Jackie yearns for some trace of Paul McCartney. But Paul is quickly supplanted by Gilliam, the gorgeous teenage hunk who is the son of her parents’ Anglo-African sponsors and the older brother of her own best friend, Terry Mae.
As directed by Paige Hernandez, a noted playwright and performer herself, Rose gives voice to everyone in this miniature world. It is a world in which Apartheid exists, but not as openly as in South Africa. Some Africans have inherited the cloak of colonialism, and some have not.
Rose moves easily from the local teenagers — Gilliam and Terry Mae — to their parents, the genteel Uncle George and his elegant wife, Maggie.
Similarly, her voice and demeanor shift as she goes from know-it-all Jackie; to her father, the domineering Charles; her mother, the obedient Grace; and — most bewildering of all — the servant, Godfrey, who uses a machete to attack a gecko.
Godfrey is seemingly the only character who is aware of the warring tribes and the genocide that will ensue. The play will end with 1969 and the outbreak of the Biafran War.
Playwright Caleen Sinette Jennings has concocted a strong brew, one that draws visibly from the play’s predecessor while laying claim to a realm of its own.
Faedra Carpenter is the dramaturg whose research and feedback provide Rose, Hernandez, and even Jennings herself with the sounding board that they need to steer the play in the right direction. “Dramaturgy,” Carpenter explains, “is not editing, but informed insight instead.”
By far the biggest obstacle to getting Queens Girl in Africa into final shape will be the need to condense it into a more manageable size without losing the touches of comedy that currently inform it. That means a lot of cutting. But the team now developing the play certainly knows what they’re doing.
Like others, I look forward to seeing the finished production — and to finding out how Jackie and her friends will get to 1969 — when the play is mounted barely four months from now.
Queens Girl in Africa will have its world premiere at Mosaic Theater Company of DC, where it will play from January 4 through February 4, 2018 at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street, NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.