After reviewing statistic after statistic about gender parity in the fields of playwriting and directing, I’m excited for the second Women’s Voices Theater Festival. Queens Girl in Africa, written by Caleen Sinette Jennings, undoubtedly shines as an opener for the 2018 festival. Curious as to what went into making this show, I got the chance to speak with Caleen, along with phenomenal designers Deb Sivigny (set), Sarah Tunderman (lights and projection), the dramaturg Faedra Carpenter, as well as Erika Rose, local acting powerhouse doing her first solo show.
Queens Girl in Africa touches on so many important themes, both in our small microcosms as well as the larger systemic and social issues that surround us. Whether aiming for the intimate or the universal, no one on this team appeared to be pulling any punches.
What inspired you to write this play?
Caleen Jennings: Ari Roth! After Queens Girl in the World, I declared it would be my first and only semi-autobiographical play. Lots of folks asked me about writing part 2. Ari finally convinced me to pick up from where the last play left off.
What’re some themes that continue over?
Caleen: All the awkwardness of adolescence– trying to fit in, find love and yet become your own person. This play covers 1965-68 and it takes place in Nigeria. The heroine is trying to negotiate the upheaval in the world as well as the upheavals in her own development.
When you write, even for a solo show, how much of yourself do you find pouring into the various characters?
Caleen: This play is semi-autobiographical so it’s 99% me. But even in a play where characters are fictional, your heart and soul have to be in every single character.
Even if they represent everything you hate, you must empathize with them and be able to defend them 100%. Otherwise they come off as mouthpieces, stereotypes or one dimensional pawns of the plot.
What is a conversation or action that you hope the play sparks?
Caleen: Theatre is a place we go to for community and connection. I hope people will connect with people who have had different experiences and feel a sense of community with the characters. I also hope they’ll draw parallels between today’s socio-political climate and the one on stage.
Faedra Carpenter: Queens Girl in Africa is so timely and multivalent! Certainly, there is the always potent and important opportunity the play offers to talk about a coming-of-age story, about blossoming into adulthood, the very issue of coming to terms with one’s identity and the inherent complexity of “identity”. But the play also offers discussion regarding contesting ideologies and “warring ideals”, when it comes to interpersonal relationships, communities, or countries–and what we as individuals and greater society can do to create more avenues for peace and tolerance.
There is so much that can be deciphered and discussed in this play–I really look forward to the many ways people will embrace it. It is a powerful story that follows a particular young person, but in doing so it touches upon triumphs and challenges that innumerable people can understand.
What influences did you bring with you into this play?
Deb Sivigny: The scenery was mainly influenced by the architecture of the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. I loved the shapes cut out of the concrete, providing both ventilation, light, and structure. The landscape is made of strong silhouettes and rich colors. I wanted to provide a space for light and projections to play. The costumes are influenced by Caleen’s personal photos with a dash of 1960s in the details.
Sarah Tunderman: During my research process, I was searching for a way that both brought in the spirit of Nigeria, and would support Erika and the characters she plays: cradle her when needed, but also build the sense of alienation, confusion, and grief when needed. In addition, with the lighting we wanted to keep it fluid: mostly keep the world naturalistic, but in a minimal and stylized way that we decided to carry through with the whole production. With projections, we also wanted to connect the ideal of the supertitles with the world we were creating, so I was looking for ways to bring the text into the design. I was greatly inspired by the artist Barbara Kruger for this as a way of visually representing the news reports that are presented throughout the story. For some of the more textural and location-based projections, I was inspired by Nigerian artist Victor Ehikhamenor.
What was it like to work with Caleen, Paige, and Erika in building the world of Queens Girl In Africa?
Sarah: Caleen, Paige, and Erika have all been a complete delight to work with. It’s been the perfect kind of collaboration where everyone has a voice and their opinions are welcome regardless of it directly falling under their role or not. It’s been a very welcoming and supportive team and I think that shows in the unity and storytelling of Queens Girl in Africa.
And one side bit is that a few days into tech Erika told the team that she doesn’t feel alone on stage, and that’s one of the biggest compliments we can get, especially on a one-woman show.
Deb: I cannot say enough good things about the dream team of Caleen, Paige, and Erika! It has been such a pleasure to build a world with three artists I admire so much.
Faedra: Working with Paige and Caleen is a dramaturg’s dream! I have been working as a professional dramaturg for more than 20 years and the very best experiences are when I have a chance to work with playwrights and directors who really have a clear artistic vision, know how to express that vision in a joyously infectious way, and are collegial collaborators. That’s what I was gifted with when working with Paige and Caleen. And both are multi-talented and versed in all aspects of theatre. They may be bearing the official title of “director” and “playwright,” but both of them have experience as directors, writers, dramaturgs, and performers, so they understand the various vocabularies and know how to communicate their ideas with the whole ensemble. And, of course, to see Erika Rose bring all the character in Queens Girl in Africa alive has been another joy–and certainly a monumental influence that has helped inform the shaping of the play.
Faedra, What has been your role as dramaturg?
Faedra: The role of a dramaturg always differs, depending upon the show and the demands. There is play development dramaturgy, production, dramaturgy, and installation/institutional dramaturgy–and even within each of those arenas, specific tasks and needs vary from show to show.
In the case of Queens Girl in Africa, I was serving as a “play development dramaturg,” which meant I had a chance to work with Caleen and Paige (and, often, Ari Roth), to help shape the play to get it into production form. Caleen is such a rich, prolific, and interesting writer and all her stories are gems, but we had to think about the arc and thematic trajectory of the show–and real practical things like the length of the play–to help contour and tighten all of Caleen’s rich ideas into a stage-ready play.
For me, as a play development dramaturg, I try to serve as a really good observer and “question-asker.” I dedicate myself to understanding the impulses and intentions of the playwright, but I must also try to continuously take on the perspective of an audience member and, in doing so, raise questions about how the dramatic, literary, and/or theatrical choices made by the playwright affect the intended story and the audiences’ interpretation of it.
Erika, What’s it like to embody multiple characters over the course of a single show?
Erika Rose: It can feel effortless when I’m relaxed and taking my time. When characters feel like they’re bleeding into one another physically or vocally I can get in my head a bit. Sometimes the precision isn’t there and it can feel hard. My director, Paige Hernandez, who has made a career of solo performing said that with an eight show week I will, at some point, be in survival mode, so some of the physicality and dialect may not be as crisp. And that’s okay. She helped me focus on intention instead of dialect and physicality alone. Though dialect and physicality are important, the intention can let the audience know who I am even before I speak. She has studied and performed in India and shared with me some of her learning on the nine emotions in Indian Dance called the Navarasas. You should ask her about it.
Do you have a favorite moment in the show? If so, what is it? (Without spoilers, please!)
Erika: Gilliam! Second Act. That’s all I’ll say. You’ll have to come to see the show to know what I’m talking about.
Queens Girl in Africa
Produced by Mosaic Theater Company of DC
closes February 4, 2018
Details and tickets
I know your work in Octoroon and In Darfur. What was it like tackling a solo show? Were there any major differences?
Erika: “Where do I begin???” that was my question. Do I start with memorizing 70 pages? Do I start with dialect, character or physicality? I was kind of paralyzed there for a while, not knowing how to dive in. I ended up doing a combination of all of them. I have played many roles where, within one show, I’m playing multiple characters but this is the first time I’m playing as many people – 17 characters that you spend time with and about 6 or so characters that just have quick cameos. I have never done a Nigerian (2 diff tribes), South African, British, Israeli, Arkansas, Pennsylvanian or French dialect in a play, ever.
At a certain point I had to let go of trying to win over the native speakers. This play is about an American remembering her time in Africa in the mid 60’s. I had great help from dialect coach Kim Bey. She can attest to my freaking out about all of this, but with her steady, confident hand we got to a nice place with the dialects. Nobody will be fooled that I’m a native speaker, but that’s not the point. The characters are distinct and where the dialect may not be as strong, the intention and physicality are there to support it.
Also, I’m blocking when to drink water! I’ve never had to do that before. It feels really weird to drink water during the show. Have you ever had an audience just sit there and watch you drink water?
What’s your overall experience been?
Erika: The word “thankful,” comes to mind.
Caleen has written a play that resonates with so many people. If you’ve ever been taken out of your element, wanted to fit in, been terrified of the unknown or how the world is spinning out of control, if you’ve ever attempted to do something about what’s bothering you, had a crush on someone, spent time studying, living or visiting Africa (Nigeria in particular) or if you know what it’s like to grow up and make it through adolescence, than this play will feed your soul.
This has been a marathon. I was paralyzed with fear for a while, unsure of how to approach the task of mounting this piece, but with lots of work, concentration, bouts of crying and support from every person on my team and in my family, I’ve done it. We’ve done it.
I am so thankful to be in this play. It is a great honor to have been asked to tell part 2 of Caleen’s extraordinary story. It is a gift. I am so proud of her. I am also proud and thankful to be a woman, a Black woman, telling another Black woman’s beautiful and uplifting story. She has given a gift to the brilliant Dawn Ursula, myself and the many African American actresses who will play these roles in the future. Thank you.
And I am so happy to have been able to work with Paige Hernandez. She is the real deal. I could not, I repeat, could not have done this without her. In fact, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone else directing this particular piece. No slight to the many amazing directors I know, love and think are brilliant. I just want to make sure that it is clear that I’d be a twitching, squirmy, nervous and general actor on stage without her clarity, dramaturgical brilliance, her international movement vocabulary, empathy, common sense and directorial smarts. She’s dope y’all. #blackgirlmagic!