How many me’s can you fit in one teenage body? Jacqueline Marie Butler (Erika Rose) ponders this question and endeavors to find her place in the world in Queens Girl in Africa, D.C. playwright Caleen SInnette Jennings’ bright, welcoming one-actor show playing in repertory with her Queens Girl in the World at Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre.
You don’t have to see World first to savor Africa, but if you can swing it and you’re in Baltimore anyway taking in both 90-minute shows in one grand gulp is pretty much a perfect day.
Africa begins with a breathless recap of Jackie’s years ages 12-15 in her Queens neighborhood and just what led her father to pack up and move everyone to Nigeria. Her father, a droll doctor from the West Indies, witnessed the assassination of Malcolm X at the Audubon Ballroom in 1965 and believes America is not safe for black people.
Not that Nigeria is a total ancestral paradise. The country has only had independence for a few years and tensions simmer between tribes and ethnicities, resulting in a powder keg of civil unrest. There are flower-scented breezes, lush beauty and African pride, but there’s also military coups, discrimination, a caste system left over from British rule, blackouts and power struggles of all stripes.
Our hero Jackie takes in all this upheaval and strangeness, but is also a typical 15-year-old American girl with a crush on Paul McCartney (she pouts when their ship docks in Liverpool and she’s not allowed to go on a Beatles tour), curious about boys and worried about making friends. She’s in a spectacularly slumpy and mopey teen girl huff over all this, in addition to adjusting to life in the bush and a new school with an international student body.
“We are living the dream of Marcus Garvey,” her father proclaims. Jackie’s not so sure—there are gecko lizards crawling up the walls of her bedroom (the houseman assures her they are a good presence in the household since they eat mosquitos), primitive bathrooms, men on the streets toting machetes or automatic weapons, and the familiar sound of Motown has been replaced by juju music (which, in time, proves equally intoxicating). Then there’s the issue of being a black middle class family waited on by black servants—a world away from what she experienced in Queens.
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Paige Hernandez’s evocative set, with its background of flame trees and burning sun, captures the exotic foreignness of Jackie’s home for her high school years. “Who will Africa Jackie be?” she asks.
Jackie’s journey of identity and self-discovery is a captivating one, where she realizes she doesn’t have to be strictly one thing or the other. She can be herself, find herself, in any setting so long as she stays true to herself—a young woman not afraid to speak her mind, express her passions, and take her rightful place in the world.
In the midst of the crazy political climate of Nigeria, Jackie—and the audience—are grounded by Jennings’ references to the seismic changes occurring back in the United States. The assassinations on our own soil, the long hot summer of ’67, Vietnam. The pop culture references keep the show buoyant and bubbly as Jackie sports her first miniskirt, sways to Otis Redding and has a boyfriend with a Beatles haircut—the dreamy mod Gilliam, with his posh British accent and motorbike.
Queens Girl in Africa at Everyman Theatre closes June 23, 2019. Details and tickets
Erika Rose embodies Jackie and the other characters with striking physical expression—her body contorting and erupting with creativity and joy as another persona emerges. To portray Gilliam, she slouches with leather jacketed insouciance that is like catnip to crushing girls like Jackie. She seems to gain inches in height to play the composed house man Godfrey and her posture-perfect and grammatically stern mother Grace; then compacts her body into adolescent squiggles (complete with shade-throwing teen girl eye rolls) to depict two of Jackie’s polar opposite girlfriends.
Rose is exuberantly, unabashedly physical throughout Africa, stalking the stage like she owns it, populating the space with characters both exact and global. She roots her performance, however, in Jackie—smart, curious, Jackie who wears her feelings on the outside where everyone can see them, and who can fit a trio of me’s inside her heart and soul, with room for many more to come. The wonder of Rose’s Jackie is that you can not only see the past and present that molded this young woman, but you can also see her limitless future.
Queens Girl in Africa by Caleen Sinnette Jennings . Directed by Paige Hernandez . Featuring Erika Rose . Set Designer: Paige Hernandez. 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 Company . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.
Playing in repertory with Queens Girl in the World through June 23 at Everyman Theatre in Baltimore.
We will revise, thanks
The scenic designer is Paige Hathaway, not Paige Hernandez.