Jaqueline Marie Butler may seem like an unassuming teenage girl, just doing her best to find her way in her new, confusing home country of Nigeria. But don’t underestimate her — as Jaqueline says herself, there’s a “blowtorch burning in her belly,” and you don’t want to be in her path when those rising emotions come to the surface.
Jaqueline is the spirited heroine of Queens Girl in Africa, a premiere production from Mosaic Theater Company kicking off this year’s Women’s Voices Theater Festival in D.C., now in its second year. Playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings wrote it as a follow-up to her Queens Girl in the World – for those who saw the original, consider it the next chapter in the woman’s adventurous life. Jaqueline’s doctor and activist father has whisked the family out of Queens and off to Nigeria to connect with their ancestral roots, just as America confronts the Civil Rights era in full. But they find a new home similarly divided as tribes battle against each other and coups take over the government and threaten their safety in their new home country.
While the chaos and upheaval in Nigeria is a major theme of Queens Girl, this play is most focused on Jaqueline’s personal journey as she navigates through friendships, first love, finding her voice as a soon-to-be adult, and begins to discover herself as an artist as well. It’s fascinating to see Jaqueline navigate her unfamiliar surroundings, including hotels with holes for bathrooms, and a home where geckos dart up the ceilings and the family has a manservant who keeps a machete ready for emergencies.
Jaqueline’s aforementioned inner blowtorch burns when she finds herself confronted with injustice, whether it be something as simple as a condescending (if handsome) neighbor scoffing at her personal connection to Nigeria, or a more formidable opponent like a small-minded professor uncomfortable with the changing times.
Queens Girl in Africa
closes February 4, 2018
Details and tickets
Queens Girl is a one-woman show, and the audience on this journey is the facile, versatile performer Erika Rose, who transitions with ease between numerous characters, from Erika’s superficial International School chums to her uptight headmaster to that roguish Nigerian neighbor with an attitude and a British accent who eventually captures Jaqueline’s heart. Director Paige Hernandez sets the scene with simple screen backdrops that light up with visual cues, and subtle sound effects that help transport the audience to Jaqueline’s surroundings.
Ultimately, Queens Girl is a joyful and engrossing window into a very personal story set in a time and place likely unfamiliar to much of the audience. That joy really comes to the surface during an emotional scene when Jaqueline finds herself part of a dance circle, largely populated by native Nigerians. Urged to come to the center and show off her moves, Jaqueline starts off self-conscious and tentative, doing an awkward approximation of “The Jerk” and, as she puts it, “feeling like one” in the process. But slowly the moment takes over and she finds herself moving freely, not self-consciously, without choreography, immersed in the moment. It’s heartening to see her find a way to express herself, making Queens Girl all the more fitting as a kick-off to a festival celebrating women’s voices.
Queens Girl in Africa. Written by Caleen Sinnette Jennings. Directed by Paige Hernandez. Starring Erika Rose. Set and Costume dEsign: Deb Sivigny. Lighting and Projection Design: Sarah Tunderman. Sound Design: David Lamont Wilson. Produced by Mosaic Theater Company. Reviewed by Missy Franklin.