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When an interviewer asked teen heartthrob Harry Styles if he felt pressure to appeal to a more mature audience as he transitioned into a solo career, he buoyed those of us who’ve ever been a pubescent girl by rejecting the question’s premise.
“Who’s to say that young girls who like pop music—short for popular, right?—have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy? That’s not up to you to say … Young girls like The Beatles. You gonna tell me they’re not serious?” Styles told Rolling Stone. “How can you say young girls don’t get it? They’re our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of keep the world going.”
In the world premiere of Queens Girl in Africa, the first play of the second Women’s Voices Theater Festival, D.C. playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings gets it. When we meet the show’s lead, 15-year-old Jacqueline Marie Butler (Erika Rose), she’s on a ship docking in Liverpool, squee-ing at being this close to her dream man Paul McCartney.
In a lesser play, this would signal Jackie’s vapidity. Thankfully, Queens Girl in Africa, like Harry Styles, knows that liking The Beatles isn’t shorthand for superficiality. Jackie may have a crush, but she also has a “blowtorch in [her] belly” that fires up when she senses injustice. Both of these characteristics lead to comedic moments, but we’re not laughing at her.
As New York City-born Jackie moves to Nigeria in 1965 with her parents, who bill the relocation as a return to their homeland, she struggles with questions of where, exactly, her family’s roots are. Keenly aware of the racism and oppression that black Americans face, she expects to find a sense of belonging in her new home.Instead, locals call her “oyinbo”—foreigner. Her family adapts to having a servant, even as her dad blanches at being called “master.” Jackie navigates a country that is both new to her and itself only five years old, on the precipice of civil war. If that isn’t tough enough, she’s also the new kid in school.
The mid-to-late 1960s depicted in the play were cataclysmic both stateside and in Nigeria, a reminder that our modern day isn’t the first time the world felt like it was ripping apart at the seams. That doesn’t stop people from having crushes or tiffs, though.
With sparse scenery and props, aside from some projections to show news footage and African geography, director Paige Hernandez cedes the stage to Rose. I could have spent the play’s entire 95 minutes watching Rose dance as Jackie, with a timidity that grows into exuberance as her confidence swells.
While she is the only actor to appear on stage, it doesn’t feel quite right to call this a one-woman show. Rose quite literally embodies dozens of characters, from Jackie’s parents to friends to street vendors—adopting fresh cadences and mannerisms for all without veering into caricature. Even though Rose only speaks one line as a Benson and Hedges cigarette hawker, for instance, it’s with a fullness that signals this vendor has his own story.
The semi-autobiographical Queens Girl in Africa is a sequel to the sublime Queens Girl in the World, which Theater J staged in the fall of 2015, though audiences can jump right in without having seen the prior play.
“The world’s a ship that can’t be righted,” Jackie concludes as she leaves Nigeria. But on this matter, I tend to agree with Harry Styles. With her perceptiveness, humor, and moral compass, Jackie kind of keeps the world going.
At Atlas Performing Arts Center to Feb. 4. 1333 H St. NE. $20–$65. (202) 399-7993. mosaictheater.org.