‘Queens Girl’ plays at Everyman Theatre are a tour de force of acting and storytelling

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Dawn Ursula, left, and Erika Rose. Credit Teresa Castracane Photography and ClintonBPhotography

Partway through “Queens Girl in Africa,” protagonist Jacqueline Marie Butler finally feels like she’s making friends at her fancy new school in Nigeria.

There’s a problem, though. Some of the students want to raise money for a school dance by holding a “slave sale.” Students will get to “buy” other students and tell them what to do. And to make it even more fun, one girl announces, owner and slave will be tied together with rope.

Jacqueline, a recent transfer from Queens, New York, screws up her courage and gives a short, eloquent argument against this terrible idea–only to be promptly shut down by an American student who tells her that slavery is in the past, so there’s no reason to be upset. The grisly fundraising event goes on.

This infuriating scene is especially remarkable because all the characters–the clueless students, the teachers who take their side, Jacqueline and a friend who admires her but says she would never speak up–are played by a single actor.

In “Queens Girl in Africa” and its companion play “Queens Girl in the World,” playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings tells the mostly autobiographical story of her teen years in the turbulent 1960s, when she was educated at a mostly black public school in Queens, a mostly Jewish prep school in Greenwich Village and an international high school in Nigeria.

Instead of enlisting a full cast of actors to depict Jennings’ alter-ego Jacqueline and the people in her world, each play stars a lone actor on stage by herself for the entire production, channeling a dozen or so characters.

The result is a tour de force of both acting and storytelling. The story is so engrossing, the characters so compellingly brought to life, it’s easy to forget that one actor is playing all the roles. With no scene changes, each play’s sole set somehow conveys an entire world.

Everyman superstar Dawn Ursula plays Jackie and her orbit of friends and family in her New York years, starting when she’s 13 in 1962. Erika Rose takes her through her Africa years, from ages 16 to 19. Both brilliant, charismatic actors use simple gestures like a chin jut or a hands-on-hips posture to capture Jacqueline’s ebullient personality and seamlessly switch from one character to another.    

With another playwright and another main character, this might seem gimmicky. Not here. Jacqueline, we quickly see, is the center of her own story.  Her voice is the one that matters. She’s shaped by her experiences, but never shattered by them as she grows from a shy girl in thrall to her tough-talking best friend and a neighborhood crush to a confident young woman who knows who she is and what she wants from life.

Racism is, of course, always present. Early in “Queens Girl in the World,” Jackie matter-of-factly announces that her doctor father and teacher mother were the first black people to move onto their street, and that all the white neighbors then moved out.

Her mother takes her to Schraftt’s, telling her that eating at the famed lunch spot is a special treat newly available to black people. And she lets young Jackie hot-comb her hair–lightly–though her father doesn’t see why. Black hair is beautiful, Dr. Charles Norman Butler reminds his wife and daughter.

Life seems grand until the assassination of Daddy’s friend, Malcolm X. The doctor moves his family to Nigeria to “live the dream of Marcus Garvey,” the activist who argued that black people should move to Africa.

“Queens Girl in Africa” begins in 1965, with a very funny scene of the Beatles-obsessed Jacqueline and her family stopping in Liverpool on the way to Africa. In the next 90 minutes, she will fall in love, learn to eat pepper stew without burning her tongue, gain the courage to fight for what matters and discover a passion for acting.

All this is against a backdrop of tension and eventual civil war in Nigeria, a country of disparate tribes and ethnicities cobbled together by the British when Nigeria won independence in 1960. News from the states is just as bad–the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., the death of Otis Redding and deadly riots in American cities are presented as terse BBC bulletins.

Through it all, Jaqueline learns to navigate the complicated social structure of her school and community, remaining optimistic and outgoing even when she’s not sure where she belongs.   

The play ends with her acceptance letter to Bennington College. Stay tuned: Jennings will chronicle those years in “Queens Girl: Back in the Green Mountains,” slated for Everyman next spring.

Meanwhile, both “Queens Girl” plays are now at Everyman, together for the first time. The chronologically correct choice is to see “Girl in the World” first, but it’s not necessary to see the shows in order. See one or see both, but don’t miss this chance to meet the marvelous Jacqueline Marie Butler and all her friends and relatives.

“Queens Girl in the World” and “Queens Girl in Africa” run through June 23 at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette St. For info and tickets: everymantheatre.org.



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