Queens Girl in the World

Clockwise from top left: Shirley Serotsky, Hangar Theatre associate artistic director, actor Vernice Miller, director Godfrey L. Simmons Jr. and playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings.

Her best friend Persephone calls her “Jack” because she’s so flat-chested. But Jacqueline Marie Butler, a young Black girl in Queens, will slowly grow into herself, both physically and emotionally. That’s the heart of the coming-of-age story in “Queens Girl in the World,” which streamed this past weekend as the third play of the Hangar Theatre’s summer season.

Set in the 1960s, this is the first in an autobiographically inspired trilogy by playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings, who’s also an actor, director and professor emerita at American University. In a pre-show conversation, Jennings spoke genially to the audience, describing the long gestation of the play and the persistence of her theatrical mentor, Philip Rose (who produced “A Raisin in the Sun”). He persuaded her with advice she now gives to young writers: “Just write –– you never know who is waiting to hear you.”

Jennings’ personal introduction pulled us right into the narrative, both told and enacted, in expressive close-up, by Vernice Miller. When she’s narrating, Miller appears in black and white; when speaking as a character, she’s in color. Occasionally, black and white photos filter across her face (sometimes distractingly) –– images of her East Elmhurst Queens neighborhood or later of social unrest.

Transforming easily from among more than nine characters, Miller becomes the shy, painfully naïve 12-year-old Jaqueline as well as her sassy, street-smart friend, Persephone. As Jacqueline’s very proper mother, Miller corrects her daughter’s speech, emphasizes politeness and noblesse oblige, and determinedly chooses the best, i.e., white, education for her.

Miller charmingly also embodies Jacqueline’s physician father –– sensible and unpretentious, with his deep-voiced Caribbean-accented warmth. We learn he’s politically active, and there’s a wonderful moment when Malcolm X visits their home. Her father’s values will eventually uproot the family when he moves them to Nigeria, so he can practice medicine where it “really matters” to his people.

But that’s the end of this tale: Before that, Miller takes us comically through the painful steps of adolescence shared by most American girls: the dismaying discovery of the facts of life, of menstruation, and of one’s parents’ sexuality. And also the truly harrowing: molestation by an elder relative, in this case Persephone’s grandfather.

These experiences are familiar and predictable, but the way Miller, through Jennings’ script, reveals them pulls us into the events, even if uncomfortably. And of course there are the silly, effervescent joys of youth as well –– when Jacqueline meets a local boy, Earl, who walks his bike with her, has a real conversation, steals a kiss willingly given. (This innocent encounter, witnessed by her mother, prompts the school transfer two days later.)

All these moments, all the self-doubt and excited, anxious wonder, are the common stuff of adolescence. But for Jacqueline, there’s another set of experiences: being Black in white America. Jacqueline doesn’t even realize much about race for a long time, until she has to give up her public school life and travel 90 minutes by bus and subway to a private school in Greenwich Village. 

There she becomes special if different, stimulated by her studies and praised by teachers. Still insecure, she discovers theater and realizes she’s no longer awkward but the best dancer among her fellow white students. A Jewish girl who befriends her drags her through all the usual thoughtless questions (e.g., on hair care) –– witnessing this exchange among seventh graders is humorous, and for a white audience, easy to digest.

But these basic illuminations of cultural difference subtly become more freighted as Jacqueline attempts to negotiate her two selves, two worlds: Queens Jacqueline and Manhattan Jacqueline. And with her father’s politics as foundation, living through all the assassinations of the ’60s, especially those of Medgar Evers and Malcolm X, Jacqueline begins to understand the entanglement of race, class and power. In ninth grade, she packs up her skate key and Nancy Drew mysteries, emblems of her simpler childhood, and begins volunteering for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Miller is so engaging that we don’t want Jacqueline’s voyage of self-awareness to end; we’re eager for the sequel, “Queens Girl in Africa,” and even more curious about the third play, “Queens Girl: Black in the Green Mountains.”

The interesting talkback following this Hangar production featured not only the playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings and actor Vernice Miller, but also Hangar associate artistic director Shirley Serotsky, who worked with Jennings previously, and director Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr. Familiar to Ithaca audiences from his co-founding of Civic Ensemble, Simmons continues his socially rich theatrical ventures as the current artistic director of Hartford’s HartBeat Ensemble. This show fruitfully brought all these talents together, and the streamed talkback, perhaps even more so than ones in the theater, revealed the complexity and passion behind this successful and timely production. 

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The Hangar Theatre features two more virtual shows this summer: “Honk Your Horn: Celebrate! Musical! Theatre!” on July 25, and Kate Hamill’s “Sense and Sensibility,” adapted from Jane Austen, on Aug. 8. Tickets $20; students $10, available at 607.273.ARTS.

Barbara Adams, a regional arts journalist, teaches writing at Ithaca College.

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