Queens Girl in the World is a story of change, discovery, and self-acceptance set against the tumultuous backdrop of Civil Rights-era New York City. Playwright Caleen Sinette Jennings tells an engaging, personal story inspired by her own childhood experiences and manages the high-wire act of balancing humor, historical and political context, and accessible personal narrative.
The audience first meets Jacqueline Marie Butler (Dawn Ursula) on the stoop of her Queens townhouse when she is twelve years old. Jackie is excited to start her first year of high school with her worldly, street-talking best friend, Persephone, but when Jackie’s elegant and socially conscious mother, Grace, catches her daughter kissing a boy under the East Elmhurst streetlights, everything changes.
Jackie is sent to a progressive school in Greenwich Village where she is one of only four black students. What unfolds, as we follow Jackie through three years of philosophy classes, bar mitzvahs, and house parties, is a poignant, hilarious journey of self-discovery in which Jackie must rectify the person she is with her friends and family in Queens with the person she becomes with her teenage Manhattanite friends. The beauty of Jennings’s script is in the honesty with which it handles Jackie’s view of the world; the major events that she experiences (the death of Malcolm X and JFK, the Birmingham Church bombing) are not just new stories; they effect the way in which she interacts with those around her, in particular with her white classmates.
Queens Girl in the World is never just a historical play: it is real and relevant because of the intense connection that the audience feels with the main character. The historical references used in the play, from the major events of the Civil Rights movement to the kind of perfume worn by Jackie’s mother, never feel forced; they are there to tell Jackie’s story.
QUEENS GIRL IN THE WORLD
Part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival
September 16 – October 11, 2015
1529 16th St, NW
Tickets: $27 – $67
And the effectiveness of Jackie’s story simply would not have been possible without the powerhouse performance of Dawn Ursula. Ursula plays a cacophonous assortment of characters, each one detailed, evocative and real. From Jackie’s self-assured Doctor father, to her lisping, neurotic white-Jewish best frenemy, to her series of would-be boyfriends, Ursula is hilariously on point in her characterizations, but never broad to the point that the characters cannot be deeply moving when the script calls for it.
However, Ursula’s most impressive performance is as Jackie herself. Jackie begins the play as a little girl with a lot to learn about every aspect of the world, but, by the show’s end, Jackie is different – not entirely grown up, not without room to become more secure, more confident – but she if different. It is the subtlety of this performance, intermixed with the dynamic shifts Ursula makes between the other characters on stage, that makes Queens Girl in the World one of the most electric pieces of theatre that I have seen in quite some time.
Queens Girl in the World by Caleen Sinette Jennings . Directed by Eleanor Holdridge . Featuring Dawn Ursula . Set and projections design: Ruthmarie Tenorio . Lighting design: Nancy Schertler . Sound design: David Lamont Wilson . Costume design: Ivania Stack . Associate Director: Paige Hernandez . Produced by Theater J . Reviewed by Jessica Pearson.