At the Aurora Fox, ‘Queens Girl in the World’ explores the Black experience from a unique angle
Janae Burris had her work cut out for her. As the sole actor in a show with 13 distinct characters, she had to convince the audience at the Aurora Fox she was all those people. It’s also important to establish those bona fides early, lest the suspension of disbelief fade before she could bring everyone along.
And in the Fox’s main hall, it’s a big stage on which to be all alone.
Burris and director April Axé Charmaine pull it off with nary a hitch, with Burris launching into Queens Girl in the World on opening night looking like she’d been doing the show for years. With a quick spin, a posture adjustment and a vocal change of gears, Burris shifted characters with minimal fuss, successfully portraying the inhabitants in her Queens, NY neighborhood in the early to mid 1960s.
With a Motown track popping up at key moments and the scene lent additional color by well-chosen projections (props to Topher Blair for spot-on timing and dramaturg Holly-Kai Hurd for well-chosen visuals), the whole thing works quite well. And while long by one-person show standards, the 90-minute performance presented without intermission never lagged, with Burris’s energy matching the pace established by playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings.
It’s the summer of 1962. Jaqueline Marie Butler is a 12-year-old Black girl whose limited view of the world is starting to expand beyond the Nancy Drew books she likes to read. Her know-it-all friend Persephone regularly dispenses fact-bombs about sex, perspiration, “menistration” and boys while Jaqueline wriggles uncomfortably. At one point she proclaims that her physician father would never do “that” to her uber-proper mother, Grace Lofton Butler.
“Then how do you think you got here?” demands Persephone.
Despite such seismic revelations of the type we all encounter as kids, Jacqueline is largely content, the top student in her class and living in a nice home at the top of the hill. That’s all shaken up when her mother decides the local public school isn’t adequate to her daughter’s talents, and moves her to a private, mostly Jewish, school in Greenwich Village.
It’s a long subway ride to lower Manhattan, and an even longer psychological journey for a young girl who goes from an all-Black neighborhood and school to one where she’s one of only a handful of Black students. There, she meets Karen Rubin, a white, Jewish girl who befriends her and continues the gossipy education begun by Persephone. With a mouth full of braces she can barely speak through, Karen (who Jacqueline claims not to even like all that much) peppers her with questions and, over a pair of sleepovers in their respective neighborhoods, helps open Jacqueline’s eyes even wider to the world both through her ignorance and knowledge.
Against it all is the backdrop of the civil rights movement, in which her parents are deeply invested. At one point, Malcolm X himself comes to visit their house, and her mother wakes Jacqueline so she can briefly meet him, shake his hand and stand in awe in the presence of the champion of racial justice. She’ll later recall this moment when, in 1965, she and her family are shocked to hear of his assassination. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Butler and Grace tell Jacqueline they’re moving back to their native Nigeria. “I’ve had enough of this country,” the doctor says.
All of the moments leading up to this show Jacqueline going from babe in the woods to a more wordly young woman with strong opinions and a growing variety of experiences, good and bad. From a first kiss with the dreamy Earl to sexual abuse at the hands of Persephone’s grandfather, they’re not always specifically Black stories. But we do see Jacqueline quickly recognize upon going to her new school that Blacks are looked upon differently in a white world. Through her parents and later her own understanding of the news, she feels the pain and frustration and difficulty of navigating that world and, in Dr. Butler’s final decision to move, the feeling of futility that’s still very much alive today in the hearts of Black people in the United States.
As a white man trying to understand this myself, seeing this character try to get her mind around these realities offered valuable insight. I was fortunate to be a few rows behind three Black people who saw a call-and-response opportunity, underscoring some of Burris’s more poignant lines with affirmations and other commentary. While normally I’d say this kind of vocal appreciation is out of place in theatre, their enthusiastic participation seemed appropriate, highlighting some of the things Black people like themselves would find particularly relevant or enlightening — or enraging.
The action in Queens Girl in the World may be set more than a half-century ago, but much of it is just as relevant today. Bringing a show like this reflects the Fox’s commitment to present theatre that reflects the surrounding community, and it’s well worth the drive from other parts of town to see a revealing portrait of America both then and now.