Where do you find your place in the world? And how easy can it be to do so when you’re trying to put together the puzzle pieces of your own life while the world around you falls apart? Imagine such a conundrum. Now imagine it in 1962, as a young African-American girl growing up in Queens, and going to a private charter school in Greenwich Village, as Malcolm X is shot, President Kennedy is assassinated, and the Alabama church bombing kills four girls your own age. In a riveting world premier, Theater J presents Queens Girl in the World as a part of The Women’s Voices Theater Festival and the Locally Grown Community Supported Art Initiative. Written by area playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings, Directed by Eleanor Holdridge, and Starring Dawn Ursula, this one-woman tour-de-force experience is gripping, evocative, and fully articulates the experience of growing up among social and racial tensions in New York City in the 60’s, as witnessed through the progressively growing eyes of the young Miss Jacqueline Marie Butler. An inspiring performance, exceptionally well written and delivered, the production echoes strikingly across the minds of the masses to answer the questions of just how we find our place in the world.
A deceptively simplistic set is the work of Set and Projections Designer Ruthmarie Tenorio. At first glance, Tenorio’s front stoop seems ordinary. Rustic brick, simple charm with slate walls across the backdrop and a streetlamp to demarcate the sidewalk. Once the play starts moving the projections filter in quite clearly across the large gray spans of upright wall, allowing for rain, snow, subway travel, visits to the MOMA, and compassionate footage of the March on Washington. Tenorio finds a seamless blend of moving projections and still ones that enhance the scenic transitions as well as the important messages imbued by the textual conference. Combining these projections with the work of Lighting Designer Nancy Schertler creates striking moments of atmospheric intensity that really draws the audience into the experience.
Suspending the disbelief of the audience to the fact that the 30-something actress is playing a 12-year-old girl is a task initially framed by Costume Designer Ivania Stack. Choosing a basic look that progressively shifts with the character’s year-long experience without ever changing fully, Stack sets the character of Jacqueline Marie Butler in a simple flowery dress that speaks of the times and of her social class standing. Complete with childish white lace collar and lacy ankle socks, these hallmarks keep the character grounded in her innocence until she is older and the collar is traded for a simple sweater and the socks fade with her childhood fancy. This subtly symbolic use of just one costume, even after the intermission, focuses on how the character despite her aging and her changes does in a sense stay the same.
Playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings captures a beautiful and stirring story within her one-woman play. The language and outlook of a young woman is articulated to perfection, particularly in moments where the character has to process life-altering changes through her own myopic perspective— such as transferring schools and not wanting to and moving from the only home she has ever known to a land far away. The descriptions that Jennings includes for the various characters that populate the show are intricately crafted and are vivid fabrications of actual people rather than just passing figures in the girl’s life. Jennings shows a mastery of character creation through the language they use and articulates the differences between her characters in a fashion that is both interesting and realistic.
The play on the whole addresses the social racial and political climate of the era without reading as a social agenda play. It is easy to see the humanity behind the story of Jacqueline Marie Butler without first focusing on the larger issues that creep into the periphery of the tale. A remarkable execution of adolescence and experience therein, Jennings’ work is thrilling to watch and experience. There is a powerful message nestled within the text and delivered through the lens of one girl’s story translates as an emotional experience that is authentic and stamped by time. Relevant, poignant and written with precision, this deeply moving piece of theatre is a powerful voice set to flight by an inspiring female playwright.
Director Eleanor Holdridge finds the perfect momentum for the one-woman show and allows performer Dawn Ursula the freedom of engaging with the piece in a most natural manner. Allowing the blocking to flow from a place of genuine movement, within the context of staying around the stoop on Erickson Street and meandering away from it when the script calls for such movement, Holdridge gives the piece an overall feel of congeniality. Furthering still the way with which the audience is able to engage with the piece, Holdridge encourages moments of direct interaction with the audience. These are done so infrequently but with precisely the right intention, and generally during moments of levity so that they audience feels fully involved but not overwhelmed by the tale.
Performer Dawn Ursula is an honest sensation on the stage in this evocative and compelling role. Taking on not only the story’s main protagonist, Jacqueline Marie Butler, Ursula gives a two hour performance that never once misses a beat, breathe, or moment. Ursula’s ability to transform the character descriptions that Jennings sets down in the text for other individuals in Jacqueline’s life is astonishing. Her keen execution of taking a textual description of characters, like Jacqueline’s mother, her various girlhood crushes, and richly detailed students in her class, is a flawless transformation of words into physicality, sentences into vocality, and ideas into reality. They way Ursula shifts her voice so that no two characters sound alike is impressive, even more so that each and every additional character gets a defining physical gesture, posture, or motion to accompany them. Her mastery of distinguishing these dozen or more characters makes for a richly entertaining evening, especially with characters that are so dynamically crafted like her classmate Rachel and her Caribbean father.
Not only does Ursula excel in creating the differences in the minor characters but she very convincingly creates the two distinguished voices of Jacqueline, which have their own sub-variations as the character progresses through the tale. This is surprisingly not the voice of home-street Queens Jacqueline verses preparatory school Greenwich Village Jacqueline, but rather internally pensive young girl and exuberantly expressive narrator. The juxtaposition of these two portrayals is beyond words of praise and there is never a dull moment therein. Ursula unearths the epitome of balance between the show’s higher moments of levity and fleeting fancy and the much heavier emotional tolls that are taken upon the story. Her facial expressions are vibrant, her full body involvement further fleshes out the character during all of her trials, experiences, and overall existence upon the stage. Dawn Ursula gives the performance of her career in this one-woman show, an earnest exploration of her acting ability, story-telling talent, and overall capacity to captivate, amaze, engage, and delight an audience for an entire evening of theatre.
Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission
Queens Girl in the World plays through October 11, 2015 at Theater J in the Washington DCJCC’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater— 1529 16th Street NW in Washington, DC. For tickets call the box office at (800) 494-8497 or purchase them online.