2933 Erickson Street may prove to be as potent and prescient as August Wilson’s 1839 Wylie Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the setting for many of his epic plays and the place where Aunt Ester lives, the spiritual beacon who will “set you right” and is as old as slavery.
The 2933 Erickson Street address is the Queens, New York home of Jacqueline Marie Butler (Dawn Ursula), the ebullient hero of Caleen Sinnette Jennings’ play Queens Girl in the World, which is playing in repertory with her Queens Girls in Africa at Everyman Theatre in Baltimore.
You may recall that Jennings’ plays were staged to great acclaim in D.C. World at Theater J and Africa at Mosaic, both under the aegis of Ari Roth. They survive the trip to Baltimore with humor, heart and smarts intact, directed with generosity and keenness by Paige Hernandez, making her directorial debut at Everyman. Paige Hathaway is responsible for the set design, a winsome, spot-on recreation of a Queens street right down to the decorative brick and grille work.
There’s something about the sureness, the warmth of Jennings’ voice that “sets you right” in a way you know Aunt Ester would approve. Queens Girl in the World is embracing and specific, centering on a young woman navigating adolescence while trying to figure out–and take up her rightful place–where she fits in the world.
Everybody can relate to that, as well as Jackie’s journey from a 12-year-old clinging to Nancy Drew books and her skate key as if a lifeline to a 15-year-old teenager dealing with boys, strict parents, and burgeoning social consciousness.
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The play begins in 1962 and goes through 1965, during the civil rights era, social and racial upheaval, assassinations and racially motivated killings. Hard enough growing up black girl in America, but during these turbulent and confusing times, it’s a wonder anyone made it out alive, much less as full of life and promise as Jackie.
What makes Queens Girl in the World more than a nostalgia play filled with references to transistor radios, Motown and 60s dances like the Monkey and the Jerk is the poetry of her dialogue, filled with rich, descriptive language. It is also how Jennings has Jackie forthrightly and wholeheartedly tackle the issue of “code switching,” which is behaving one way with one group of people or ethnicity and behaving another way with your own people.
Throughout the 90-minute, one-actor play, Jackie worries about having “two me’s” in one brain and one body–the Jackie who hangs out on the stoop with her home girl Persephone, street smart and grown beyond her years from here to Sunday, and the Jackie who goes to a progressive school in the city (Greenwich Village) ponders things like life’s paradoxes and societal anarchy with her liberal white and Jewish school chums.
Queens Girl in the World at Everyman Theatre closes June 23, 2019. Details and tickets
Jackie flips between cream sodas, bubble gum and flirting with dangerously cute neighborhood boys and creme de menthe (snuck from her school friends’ parental liquor cabinets), West End apartments with black maids in servitude, live theater and bat mitzvahs–all the while wondering if she is selling out or not being authentic to herself.
The secret you want to reassure Jackie with is that her soul and her vision are big enough to hold many “me’s” and that she will unquestionably be able to sift through and combine the best of her different personas to become her true self, which will no doubt change as she goes through life’s ups and downs.
Dawn Ursula is a life-affirming marvel as Jackie, shape-shifting seamlessly between the decorum and precise diction of her teacher mother Grace (who always admonishes her daughter to pronounce her “g’s”), the West Indies cadences of her doctor father, Persephone’s bossy toughness, the comic sibilance of her first Jewish friend who combines the vocabulary of a Rhodes scholar with a mouth full of metal, and Jackie’s first crush, a sweet bike-riding Romeo with a voice like “butter melting in a skillet” named Earl.
Ursula holds us enthralled with the breadth and precision of her characters, giving us a master’s brushstroke in a bend of the wrist, a raised eyebrow or the pursing of the lips. She creates an entire neighborhood, a world really, with just her voice and expressions, both facial and physical.
But you love her Jackie best, a young girl bursting with thoughts, feelings, curiosity and astute observations. Her Jackie is like a plunge off the diving board into the deep end–good-scary, exhilarating and bracing from head to toe.
Playing in repertory with Queens Girl in Africa through June 23 at Everyman Theatre in Baltimore.
Queens Girl in the World by Caleen Sinnette Jennings . Directed by Paige Hernandez . Featuring Dawn Ursula . Set Design: Paige Hathaway . Lighting Design: Nancy Schertler. Costume Design: Ivania Stack. Projection Design: Sarah Tundermann. Sound Design: David Lamont Wilson. Dialects: Kim James Bey. Dramaturgy: Robyn Quick. Props Master: Jillian Mathews. Stage Management: Amanda M. Hall and Cat Wallis. Produced by Everyman Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.