Playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings had never written anything really autobiographical before taking on “Queens Girl in the World,” her memoir of being a New York City teen in the turbulent 1960s. So as she wrangled that play into shape, how was she to know she needed to include her dad’s connection to Malcolm X?
“We’re sitting with her in a conference room,” recalls Dawn Ursula, who played Jacqueline Marie Butler, Jennings’s alter ego, in the solo show. “And she just casually says, ‘This time Malcolm X came to my house . . . ’ Everybody started honking, bullhorns — ‘Back up! You just said Malcolm X the way I say McDonald’s! You have to put that in the play.’ ”
Malcolm X figures in the 2015 “Queens Girl in the World” and in last year’s sequel, “Queens Girl in Africa,” which recalls the family’s move to Nigeria after the civil rights leader’s assassination. It took plenty of encouragement, but now Jennings has unexpectedly found herself with a trilogy of solo memoir plays, all told from young Jackie’s precocious point of view.
Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre is remounting “Queens Girl in the World” and “Queens Girl in Africa” with the original actors; Ursula in the first play (now running), and Erika Rose in the second (starting May 14). Next spring, Everyman will premiere “Queens Girl: Black in the Green Mountains,” following Jackie through her college years in Vermont from 1968-1972; that show will also christen Everyman’s intimate new studio theater.
“I’m tempted to call it ‘This Is It,’ ” says Jennings, feeling that her chapters on Jackie are wrapping up.
Jennings, 68, never thought about mining her childhood for a semi-autobiographical play until she met Philip Rose — the producer whose credits include the Broadway premiere of “A Raisin in the Sun” — more than a decade ago at an Arena Stage event. Rose broached the idea, and Jennings gradually created an entertainingly descriptive schoolgirl whose eyes widen starting at age 12 as she notices everything from boys to culture clashes. Both scripts call for the lone actor to play multiple parts — Caribbean father, watchful mother, risk-taking friends — and Ursula won a Helen Hayes Award for “Queens Girl in the World.”
Though the show was a success when it debuted at Theater J during Washington’s first Women’s Voices Theater Festival, Jennings figured that was that.
“Ari put the full-court press on,” Jennings says of Ari Roth, who was then the artistic director at Theater J and now runs Mosaic Theater Company. “The thing that got me: He said, ‘How much did you learn from writing this? Wouldn’t you like to put all those lessons to work?’”
“Queens Girl in Africa” debuted at Mosaic as part of the second Women’s Voices Theater Festival, with Rose playing Jackie. Rose is nominated for a Helen Hayes Award; the event is Monday night.
The challenges of holding the stage all by herself for two hours, Rose says during a conference call with Ursula, make up a daunting list. “When to drink water,” Rose begins. “Doing eight different men. Switching back and forth in dialogue, the intricacy of who is speaking when, where the focus is — it can’t be sloppy.”
“Paige said the morph is magical,” Ursula adds, referring to director Paige Hernandez, who is directing both shows. “I can’t morph too fast, because the audience might not catch it. And they need that. It’s on the breath, or on the movement.”
Deeper than the technical issues is handling the resonance of the 1960s events. “Hearing the news about the political strife in Nigeria and the States — there isn’t another actor to bounce that off of,” Rose says. “Cincinnati exploding, Nigeria’s civil war — they’re really important moments. I’m working on how they add up, how they help her grow up.”
News of the four girls killed when a Birmingham church was bombed in 1963, Ursula notes, implicitly invokes the 2015 shooting of black worshipers in a Charleston church. “We’re a long way from it being a period piece,” Ursula says.
“I had no idea,” Jennings says of the contemporary political resonance these stories sometimes strike. “A 12-year-old girl spends 90 percent of time thinking about herself.” Writing the plays, she focused on where she was, who she was with, what they were doing and thinking. The result, Jennings reckons, just happened to be “a personal walk that leads you into the history.”
Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette St., Baltimore. 410-752-2208 or everymantheatre.org.
Dates: Through June 23.