The civil rights era is brought to life in Theater J’s season-opener, Queens Girl in the World, a semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age tale recounting the junior high years of Jacqueline Marie Butler in her middle- and working-class Elmhurst neighborhood in Queens. The only child of a doctor and an educator, Jackie navigates early adolescence, discovering hormones, the menstrual cycle, boys and politics during her 12th summer spent at her home’s stoop. There, she read Nancy Drew mysteries, played hopscotch and bantered with her across-the-street best friend, Persephone.
This world premiere, by local playwright and American University professor Caleen Sinnette Jennings, lovingly directed by Eleanor Holdridge, is one installment in the city-wide Women’s Voices Theater Festival. Running through Oct. 11 at Washington’s DCJCC’s Goldman Theater, the play was developed by Theater J during last season’s Locally Grown: Community Supported Art Initiative to encourage Washington-area playwrights to pen works relevant to the local theater-going community.
Queens Girl, with the help of Ruthmarie Tenorio’s front stoop set and projections, depicts urban life during the early 1960s with accurate detail. Dawn Ursula ably plays Jacqueline Marie as she comes to understand the world beyond her stoop and her mother’s rules. Ursula plays a dozen more characters, including Grace Lawton Butler, Jackie’s prim mother, memorable for her crisp diction and predilection for correcting her daughter: “Ain’t is not a word.”
Jackie’s world is disrupted after sixth grade, when she’s sent a progressive private school in Greenwich Village, an hour’s subway ride away. There, after the cocoon of her black neighborhood and P.S. 167, Jackie is one of three “Negroes.” Her classmates and teachers are white, liberal and predominantly Jewish, and she learns not only new vocabulary, like transcendentalism, homosexuality and oy vey, but also Jewish traditions and social practices. From gleaning snippets of Hebrew prayers when invited to classmates’ Shabbat dinners and b’nai mitzvah to understanding that many Jewish children are raised to debate and argue politics in ways her parents wouldn’t tolerate, this experience profoundly challenges and changes Jackie.
Queens Girl doesn’t dabble in the expected or safe trope of black-Jewish relations, rather it suggests commonalities — along with differences — as Jennings captures poetically an essential moment in our nation’s history through the eyes of this teenage black girl. Jackie wrestles with her identity and learns to finesse code switching, changing her demeanor, slang and attitude as she rides the E train. Is she is becoming too friendly and complacent with her new white, upper-class Jewish friends while leaving behind her roots in her black community? In Queens Girl, these struggles feel familiar to American Jews and others who came of age as minorities in a white, Christian world. It’s a question that remains relevant five decades after the March on Washington was meant to change a nation.
Queens Girl in the World, through Oct. 11 at Theater J of Washington’s DCJCC, 1529 16th St. NW. Tickets start at $37.