Dawn Ursula, a resident company member with Everyman Theatre, sits in a room of people as she gets camera ready with hair and makeup. She smiles broadly and projects the certain poise of someone who has been performing for others for more than two decades. When she talks, her inflection is clear, her speech is emphatic, but most of all, her grin lights up a room.
Ursula is the recipient of two Helen Hayes Awards for her work and has acted at theaters around the area, including Round House, Woolly Mammoth and the Kennedy Center. Her next show at Everyman starts in May; it’s her second performance as the character of Jacqueline Marie Butler in “Queens Girl in the World.” The script tells the tale of a young African-American girl whose sudden transfer from a protective, middle class late-1950s upbringing in Queens to a progressive, predominantly Jewish private school in Greenwich Village brings both comedy and commentary, and Ursula gives voice to all parts.
The one-woman play premiered at Washington, D.C.’s Theater J in 2015 as part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, and Ursula starred in it, earning strong praise with playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings’ mostly autobiographical work.
Ursula says she curated some acting chops back in high school when she joined her school’s speech and debate team. “There was a division of prose and poetry interpretation, and that’s how I first got started,” she says. “I transitioned from that to plays, continued theater in undergrad and went on to get a non-theatrical job in corporate America because I didn’t think I’d be successful.”
“That didn’t work out because I was terribly unhappy, and I came back to theater,” she says. “I think there was a time when I finally accepted that I needed to do this and that it was the one thing that made me feel like I’m the happiest.”
Bringing characters and stories to life and giving life to a playwright’s vision still resonate, Ursula says. “The other part that I love so much is the impact that it has on audience members. I’ve been able to get some amazing feedback about their experience receiving these stories, and that keeps me going.”
What’s the hardest part about bringing a character to life on stage? The challenge changes from role to role, Ursula explains. “It really depends upon what I recognize is the bridge between the character and their experience and their journey versus how well I feel I connect and understand it,” she says. “For example, in a period piece, I might have to recognize, ‘OK, this is set in the early 1800s. So what is it about this character and her journey that I missed? It’s not my life. So, how do I find that?’”
Or, sometimes, it’s putting on a one-woman show. “Sometimes, I’m going to need to memorize hours of dialogue and play 13 people effectively. That’s a whole different, amazing challenge that also has to do with stamina and the solitude of being in a one-person show,” she says. “As for ‘Queens Girl,’ I have not often had the opportunity to remount a show. So it’s exciting to be able to revisit a script and bring to life that character. I’m also mature. I’m different. So I always think about what I can bring in because, you know, life gives you more information. It’s really exciting to begin this journey again.”
How does she manage it all? For Ursula, it’s a balancing act between mother, wife and artist. And spending time with her 10-year-old daughter and husband is paramount, as well as a relaxing night in.
“Honestly a glass of Moscato and a warm bath of lavender and Epsom salt, it’s my go-to,” she says.
“Queens Girl in the World” runs at Everyman Theatre from May 7 to June 23. everymantheatre.org. The sequel, “Queens Girl in Africa” is also showing at Everyman Theatre through June 23. After the show on Friday, June 14, stay for a post-party with Nyame Nti-CHAT African Drumetry. Grab a drink and enjoy some African drumming!
WHAT’S SHE WEARING
BLAZER, $90; PANT, $70; SHIRT, $40;
SHOEs, $60; BRACELETs, $23;
Necklace, $27; earringS, $20;
ALL FROM NEW YORK & COMPANY
Model: Dawn Ursula
Photographer: David Stuck
ART DIRECTOR/STYLIST: Ebony Brown
Makeup: Ida M. Slaughter
Location: Everyman Theatre