Any list of premier actors in Washington has to put Dawn Ursula’s name near the top, and the actress has been handed a dazzling showcase in the solo “Queens Girl in the World.” Ursula plays an adolescent named Jacqueline Marie Butler, a black girl with a sunbeam spirit — and she effortlessly suggests everyone else in this comic memoir, including Jackie’s hearty Caribbean father and white Jews when she is transferred to a tony Manhattan school.
This is palm-of-her-hand stuff: That’s how totally Ursula captivates the Theater J audience. She has a knack for inhabiting intimidating mothers, nervous girls and gushing teachers, each quickly recognizable through voices and facial expressions that grow warmly familiar over the show’s two hours. This versatility makes Ursula a supple interpreter for the easygoing yet tough-minded new play from Caleen Sinnette Jennings, premiering now as part of the city’s ongoing Women’s Voices Theater Festival.
“Queens Girl in the World” is both history and nostalgia: It’s Jennings’s reminiscence of growing up in 1960s New York. (Director Eleanor Holdridge deftly summons the period with snippets of Motown and some smart skyline and news photo projections by Ruthmarie Tenorio.) Jackie is 12 when the play starts, nervous about her budding body and scandalized by naughty whispers about the facts of life from her racy friend Persephone. Ursula leans back and gives Persephone a hard, knowing voice; as Jackie’s strict yet loving mother, Ursula takes on a verbal and physical rectitude that’s sometimes hilarious.
Jennings is fond of most of these characters; she seems to empathize even with such broadly drawn figures as the verbose and confident Jewish girl who talks through braces. With its gags about hot combs and women “relaxing” their hair (which draws choice words from Jackie’s father), “Queens Girl” seldom feels like a look back in anger.
Jennings isn’t about to whitewash the era’s history, though. In fact, turbulence and change slowly emerge as key features when race gets radically re-framed at the Jewish school (where hardly anyone else is black) and when Malcolm X makes a surreptitious visit to the family’s home. The projections recall the four girls killed in a bombing in Birmingham, Ala., as Jackie commits their names to memory, and Jennings arrestingly questions the principle of nonviolent resistance as the civil rights movement picks up. Jackie the Queens girl gets some awfully rude awakenings all over the place, from the not-so-safe harbor of Persephone’s house to the streets of New York, and beyond. Each reality check hits our sweet, thoughtful heroine like a bruising ding to the head.
Even so, Jennings has no problem writing with an unabashed romantic streak, especially as she revisits girlhood crushes. Jackie has a poetic style — she wants to be a writer, surprise, surprise — and as she talks straight to us, she delivers wonderfully descriptive phrases about such things as the color of the sky and the mesmerizing movement of a handsome young man’s lips.
It’s a rich, personable play, and it wouldn’t be surprising if “Queens Girl” graduates to a healthy afterlife. It’s not demanding to stage (although Holdridge’s collaboration with her tasteful designers and with the lively, insightful Ursula makes it look perhaps deceptively easy to keep a solo show from getting static), and surely there are actresses in other cities who would be thrilled to take a crack at Jackie and the rest of this vivid gallery. It’s a feel-good show that doesn’t need to make apologies, an entertaining memoir that also comes across as honest, and hardly past its sell-by date. The world has spun a long way from the early 1960s — and, as Jennings prods us to recognize, not so far at all.
“Queens Girl in the World,” by Caleen Sinnette Jennings. Part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. Directed by Eleanor Holdridge. Set design, Ruthmarie Tenorio; lights, Nancy Schertler; costumes, Ivania Stack; sound design, David Lamont Wilson. About two hours. Through Oct. 11 at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center’s Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater, 1529 16th St. NW. Tickets $37-$67. Call 202-777-3210 or visit www.theaterj.org.