Queen of Her World Everyman’s New Play Reigns

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What I continue to enjoy about Everyman Theatre’s plays is how much they resonate with our current world — even when they are not set in contemporary times. “Queens Girl in the World,” the one-woman extravaganza starring Dawn Ursula, who originated and won a Helen Hayes Award for the role, is just the latest example.

Dawn Ursula as Jacqueline Marie Butler; photo by Teresa Castracane

Set in Queens, New York, in the ’60s, it is the coming of age story of Jacqueline Marie Butler, a young black girl during the Civil Rights era. Bright, curious and witty, this charming and likable character is based on playwright’s Caleen Sinnette Jennings’ own life and experiences (In fact, photos of Jennings and her family adorn the walls of the theater’s lower level). Jacqueline is well written, endearing and acted to perfection by Ursula who seamlessly moves from Jacqueline’s voice to her Caribbean father’s to her classmates at the progressive Greenwich Village school that she attends in a world so different than Queens.

Other notable characters are her friend Persephone, a knowing neighbor all embodied in teen girl slang and posture, Jacqueline’s regal mother, who so eloquently decodes the world for her daughter, and Persephone’s exhausted but loving mother, who works long hours as a maid.

Motown tunes provide the play’s soundtrack and real-life events are the springboard for Jacqueline’s own growth. She is devastated, for example, by the death of four girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Alabama because the girls are so close to her age, and she wonders if something like that could happen in New York.

After Malcom X, a friend of her parents, is killed, Jacqueline’s father announces that he is moving the family to Nigeria, an event that sets the stage for the play’s follow-up, “Queens Girl in Africa,” which opens at Everyman later this week. This marks the first time both plays will be staged together.

Jennings is working on a third autobiographical installment, “Queens Girl Black in the Green Mountains,” which will debut next spring at Everyman. She is finishing the script now, she said at an opening night after-party, where she was mobbed by well-wishers who wanted to share how her story had moved them.

Ursula was equally swallowed by the crowd who greeted her post-play appearance with applause and cheers; during the play, the audience also reacted with loud enthusiasm. This was in part because of Ursula’s skill and mastery, but also the intimacy that a one-woman show like this creates. Everyone rooted for Jacqueline: She is part kid sister, pesky neighbor, blossoming student and young woman of an ever-changing world.

I, for one, can’t wait to see the rest of her story.

“Queens Girl in the World” runs through June 23. “Queens Girl in Africa,” starring Erika Rose, runs May 14 to June 23. everymantheatre.org

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