Queens Girl in the World, the first work in a trilogy by professor and playwright Caleen Sinette Jennings, introduces us to Jacqueline Marie Butler as she faces the mysteries of adolescence and navigates the cultural shift from her predominantly Black neighborhood in the New York burrough of Queens to the white/liberal/Jewish environment of a private school in the heart of the city. Early in the sequel Queens Girl in Africa, which opened last week in a production at Clackamas Rep that’s every bit as vibrant as its predecessor, our teen protagonist, newly arrived in Nigeria with her parents, ponders the next phase of her life: “I was Queens Jackie,” she reflects. “And Greenwich Village Jackie. Who will Africa Jackie be?”
Later, in a brushstroke that feels like foreshadowing of a life chapter to come, Jackie gets cast in a school production of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. “I play the role of Sabina and discover that if it’s OK to have Sabina in my body, it’s OK to have three different Jackies in my body,” she tells us. “Is acting something I could do seriously?”
Acting is something that Lauren Steele can do seriously. Steele stars in Queens Girl as Jackie, and, through Jackie as she tells her story, as more than a dozen other, quite varied, characters. The script calls for quicksilver shifts in accent, affect, mood, language, body language; Steele never lets us see how much work must have gone into it all, so smooth and instant is every transition, so clearly delineated is each new voice and stance.
Jackie – bright, enthusiastic, innocent, curious, emotionally transparent – is narrator and actor in her own tale. But there’s also her mother, Grace (prim expression, soft voice, crisp American-standard diction, careful posture with legs always together, a beleaguered elegance like Lena Horne plopped down in the jungle); her father, Charles, a West Indian doctor (proud to the point of haughty, always an upright stance and a downturned mouth); his father’s boss, George, an exile from South Africa (always smiling, his arms and legs as open as his heart); George’s daughter, Terry-may (her snottiness showing in a cocked hip, habitual hair-twisting, and slang-spiked speech in a colonial-Brit accent); Jackie’s dolt of a geography teacher (an ugly-American type, thumbs tucked into a belt above a belly); Fumilayo, a Nigerian student at Jackie’s school, (alternately worried and buoyant, her voice a bubbling fountain of pidgin English); Godfrey, the Butler’s Nigerian house servant (good-natured but uneasy, shoulders stooped by the twin habits of subservience and labor, brows either raised in suspicion or furrowed in worry about rival tribes); and so on.
(Audiences might need to concentrate to track the dialogue at times, but that’s not because of Steele’s voice work – kudos to dialect coach Kim James Bey, who surely earned her fee – rather, it’s a function of the international community Jackie finds herself in, where one friend flaunts her French fluency and the next says things such as “Eef we fit march, where we dey go?”)
Each characterization also rides the fine line between appearing a person in its own right yet also wearing the colorful cloak of Jackie’s perspective. So vivid are they that, after the show, I overheard someone remarking on what a great mimic Steele is. But of course, it’s one thing to mimic someone, quite another thing to invent someone to mimic.
In any case, all those voices and ways of moving through the world aren’t presented here as a way for an actor to show off. The title Queens Girl in the World was a hint: As with that first play, this is a story about who Jackie is but also about where she is, what surrounds and affects her. It’s a coming-of-age story concerned not just with the age of its central character but the age in which that character lives. In each part of her story, Jackie is growing up in three ways at once: into herself, as she learns about her heart, her interests, her abilities; into her social surroundings, as she encounters peers and adults from ever-widening backgrounds and strives for both acceptance and independence; and into a fraught, politically charged world, as parallel narratives of racial/ethnic division and violence play out in America and Africa.
Increasingly, Jackie becomes an irreducible sum of many parts. Thinking of what she misses about America, she mentions Otis Redding and then a bagel with schmear. She starts the play besotted by the Beatles; by the end she’s learned to “dance deep into lowdown juju music.” And through it all she’s forming both a keen consciousness of social justice and political outlook that strives to balance practicality with moral imperative.
In a time when identity has become an abiding concern in our culture, Jennings’ Queens Girl plays seem like a particular treasure, examining – without prejudice and with abundant charm – some of the ways identity gets formed, as an ongoing process of both individuation and integration.
In a tearful goodbye at the end of Queens Girl in Africa, Grace sends her daughter off to college, telling her, “You know who you are, Jacqueline Marie Butler.”
In the moment, it’s hard to think of a greater expression of praise and love.
(Also see Lauren Steele: Queens Girl actress and ‘Nighttime’ singer, Dmae Lo Roberts’ Stage & Studio podcast conversation with Steele.)
The flattened stage
When it comes to matters of Black identity, I’m always interested in the perceptive perspective of the esteemed culture critics and social philosophers, Key and Peele:
When I was in high school in Portland, eons ago, my school, Washington High, was merged with another, Monroe High, and given the simple hybrid name Washington-Monroe. The humiliating result was that folks instantly took to calling the place “Wa-Mo,” pronounced “Wham-O,” like the company that made Frisbees). Toward the end of the first year of this arrangement, someone decided to let the student body vote on a new name. To my bitter dismay, Washington-Monroe won out over a few other finalists, including John F. Kennedy and others I can’t recall.
I had been lobbying for what seemed to me a far better alternative: Alexander Hamilton High School. Although Hamilton hadn’t been President, as the other prospective namesakes had, he was my favorite of the Founding Fathers, and writing something as foundational as the Federalist Papers surely was credential enough. What’s more, that choice suggested a great nickname for our sports teams: the Feds.
These days, of course, everybody’s an Alexander Hamilton fan. Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Hamilton became a best-seller and was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, but the megaton cultural impact was set in motion when actor/writer Lin-Manuel Miranda read it and was so inspired that he began creating rap lyrics from the point of view of an 18th-century Treasury Secretary.
The rest is beat-savvy history that can’t be beat. Arguably the most celebrated musical in decades, winner of a constellation of major awards (Tony, Grammy, Olivier, Drama Desk, Obie – even a Pulitzer Prize), Hamilton returns for a three-week engagement at the Keller Auditorium.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, who, along with Hamilton director Thomas Kail and the rapper Anthony Veneziale, created the show Freestyle Love Supreme, calls it an “improv hip-hop comedy phenomenon.” That’s at least two strikes against it in my book, but what do I know? Improv can be a dicey proposition, but done well it can feel thrilling and special. And as for hip-hop, I wouldn’t consider it the scourge of modern culture if so many other folks didn’t love it so much that it’s become nearly inescapable. And no less estimable a critic than The New York Times’ Ben Brantley avowed that Freestyle Love Supreme is an “exultant master course in the fine art of hip-hop,” one that “suggests that there’s no feeling, thought or experience so anxious or so random that it can’t be translated into infectious, neon-bright rhythms.”
Portland Center Stage presents it in a four-week Mainstage run. So all you improv hip-hop fans are encouraged to enjoy it for me.
The website New York Theater called Nassim Soleimanpour’s play Nassim “an example of what you can call trickster theater,” but it’s a benign kind of trick. As with a previous play by Soleimanpour, White Rabbit Red Rabbit, which had a long Off Broadway run several years ago, Nassim is performed by a different actor at each performance, with no rehearsal and no prior knowledge of the script, which the actor is allowed to read from only as the show begins.
In part this approach was designed to get his work performed while he was banned from traveling outside his native Iran because he refused to do compulsory military service. But, as he explained in an interview with American Theatre magazine, it also was a formalist experiment. “My dad is a novelist; all my uncles are known Iranian writers,” he said. “So most of the good ideas were spoiled by the time I started to write. So very immediately, I came up with this urge that it should be surprising.”
This emphasis on surprise makes Nassim a tough show to preview. “It’s about friendship, it’s about language, it’s about hope and home and a way to unify,” Soleimanpour says in an interview on YouTube. A review in The New York Times describes it as “a play about displacement … (that) speaks, at times eloquently, of trying to live and work in a place and with a language not your own.”
This weekend’s performances at the Reser Center in Beaverton will feature Josie Seid on Friday and Troy Metcalf on Saturday.
Part of what it’s calling a “Spring Comedy Triple Play,” Red Octopus Theatre Company in Newport offers a readers-theater presentation of Craig Lucas’s fantastical romantic comedy Prelude to a Kiss for two nights only.
Time is running out on Portland Playhouse’s terrifically engaging Shakespeare tragedy Titus Andronicus, Lakewood’s Shakespeare-riffing comedy Leading Ladies, Fuse Theatre’s trans ensemble drama The Queers, and the Boom Arts presenation of El Apellido Comienza Conmigo, a highly personal investigation of corruption and patriarchy, by the Peruvian company Fílmico.
Coming (softly) to your senses
To mark Autism Acceptance Month – and, we imagine, to further the efforts at inclusivity that so many theaters pursue these days – Oregon Children’s Theatre presents a sensory-friendly performance of its current hit The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show. “During this performance there will be lowered seating capacities to allow for more space and movement between patrons, house lights will remain up, fidget toys are welcome, and use of electronic devices and headphones will be permitted. Other accommodations, such as a designated quiet space outside the theater, will be offered.” Expect a comfortable time for neurodiverse little ones and caterpillars alike.
Best line I read this week
“In 1959, the great sociologist Erving Goffman gave a talk as a visiting university lecturer in which he described his theories of human behavior in his extraordinary book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Goffman’s theory has come to be known as the “dramaturgical approach” because he essentially says life is like a play in which we are all actors who portray ourselves to other actors who are portraying themselves. He says that in every encounter we attempt to present ourselves in the best possible light, that we all try to control the impression we make, and that there is a tacit social agreement, ‘a working consensus,’ that we allow each person to perform as himself however he chooses. At the end of the lecture, a graduate student rose and asked a question in a rather supercilious tone. ‘Isn’t your theory,’ he asked, ‘just the all-the-world’s-a-stage-and-we-are-merely-players-on-it cliché that Shakespeare used four hundred years ago?’ Goffman, who was a rather introverted man, stumbled a bit, and then replied, ‘Ah, well, let me ask you, except for the fact that there is no audience, can you tell me how life is fundamentally different from that?’”
– from You’re Too Kind: a Brief History of Flattery, by Richard Stengel
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.