When I stepped into the Atlas Performing Arts Center for the premiere of Caleen Sinnette Jennings’ “Queens Girl in Africa,” I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had not seen the first part, “Queens Girl in the World,” which was presented a few years back by Theater J. But I didn’t need to. My jaw dropped because it was my story.
The one-woman show, with each character skillfully — and humorously — enacted by the tour de force who is Erika Rose, popped with familiarity as she portrayed a plethora of characters; Caribbean, American, Israeli, African and more, all living in Nigeria at that pivotal time. But the story of 12-year-old Jaqueline Marie Butler’s coming-of-age story — an African-American girl transported in her formative years to Nigeria in the mid-’60s — mirrors my own experience as a girl of a similar age leaving America for the cultural clash that is Africa.
The protagonist, the daughter of a Caribbean revolutionary medical doctor father who leaves the United States after the assassination of Malcolm X and her schoolteacher mother, invites the audience into her inner monologue about the people she encountered as she transformed from a reluctant preteen to a college-bound woman against the backdrop of post-independence Nigeria.
Directed by Paige Hernandez, who herself is a master of the one-woman monologue, “Queens Girl in Africa” not only entertains, it educates. Recalling the parallel histories of the impending civil war in Nigeria and the struggle for civil rights in the United States, Jacqueline Marie’s story is filtered through the foreign news services that expatriates and others posted outside of the country depend upon to keep a finger on the pulse of their homeland.
Hernandez and Rose are a natural fit for this production, which kicks off the current Women’s Voices Theater Festival, running from Jan. 15 through Feb. 15 as 25 of the region’s professional theaters join forces to present theater by women. The two attended college together, and their knowledge of each other’s talents meld perfectly in this thoroughly delightful play.
“Erika Rose is a tremendous and versatile actress whose heart and work ethic never cease to amaze me,” Hernandez said. “I’m thrilled that we get to work together in this capacity. She and I were students together at the University of Maryland College Park so this connection is truly full circle.”
Playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings marveled at the interpretation of her work.
“It’s very moving for me to be giving birth to this incredibly personal new play surrounded by such talented and passionate collaborators— including director Paige Hernandez who helped usher forth ‘Queens Girl in the World,’ which was commissioned by Ari Roth at Theater J back in 2014,” she said. “It’s wonderful to be reunited with him and with a dear collaborator, Erika Rose, one of D.C.’s most powerful and versatile actors.
“This semi-autobiographical play is a tribute to this huge, beautiful complex Nigeria of the 1960s and how it made me who I am,” Jennings said.
Through the eyes of this conscious, budding young woman, the audience experiences her transformation from an American to a Black woman who embraces her African heritage, but appreciates her stateside upbringing as well.
Using moveable backdrops that reflect Africa, and spare props (a trunk and a chair) that serve as a bed, a podium and a receptacle for the few, but significant clothing changes — which are also minimalist — much is conveyed through simplicity.
Deb Sivigny (set and costume design), Sarah Tunderman (lighting and projection design) and David Lamont Wilson (sound design) take what appear to be minor elements, but when joined with the script, acting and direction, tell a story that most couldn’t with a full cast of actors.
“I’m also fortunate to have such an incredible design team,” Hernandez said. “We’ve all worked together on various projects which makes our collaboration even more meaningful. I’m excited for the audience to see how much a thoughtful design can really make a solo show soar.”
And soar it does, into the hearts, minds and funny bones of all who take it in. “Queens Girl in Africa” is not just for those who have had an African experience, for whom much will seem familiar (almost uncannily so), but to anybody who has grown up and observed the things that make them who they are.
In addition to being the Mosaic Theater Company’s contribution to the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, it also kicks off a new initiative called “Locally Grown Mosaic,” which will feature new works by playwrights from the community.
“Locally Grown Mosaic is designed to invest in our diverse artistic community right here in D.C. to promote local artists and perspectives, and to produce works that jumpstart conversations about issue directly influencing our neighborhood,” said founding artistic director Roth. “We are thrilled to be launching this initiative with ‘Queens Girl in Africa,’ which will highlight and champion the incredible talents of a local playwright, director, actor and design team.”
“Queens Girl in Africa” plays at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, through Feb. 4. Go to mosaictheater.org for additional information and showtimes.