'Queens Girl in the World" was a hit during Washington's 2015 Women's Voices Theater Festival, a semiautobiographical charmer from longtime D.C. playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings about a black girl coming of age in 1960s New York. The solo show at Theater J earned Dawn Ursula a Helen Hayes Award for outstanding lead actress.
Jennings's follow-up, "Queens Girl in Africa," is the first play out of the gate for the second Women's Voices festival of new works sweeping Washington over the next two months. This time, Erika Rose is playing Jennings's alter ego, Jacqueline Marie Butler, as the teenager spends 1965 to 1968 with her parents in Nigeria during that country's civil war.
Jennings discussed the play before its start at Mosaic Theater Company.
Q: What is the Queens girl up to now?
A: They arrive in Africa, and the play is about all the incredible adjustments. She left the U.S. and the U.S. went crazy. The whole world was on fire when she was 15 to 18. Everything that happened to Jackie happened to me.
Q: What were you doing in Nigeria?
A: Dad and Mom had become civil rights activists, and Dad was in the ballroom when Malcolm X was assassinated. That for him was the straw that broke the camel's back. He was a pediatrician, and he was tired of treating scraped knees and runny noses. The 1960s was a time when all these African nations were becoming independent, and in the United States, there was a Pan-African movement with a lot of people turning to Africa to learn more about themselves.
So we left. My dad was contracted directly with a teaching hospital. I was there three years; they stayed another year. I came back to go to Bennington College in 1968. You couldn't imagine a more different place from where I had been.
Q: How much of the script is research, and how much is memory?
A: A little bit of both. When you're 15, you don't know how incredibly important the history that surrounds you really is. I had to put together a timeline of the Nigerian Civil War to remind myself what was going on.
Q: How hot were those circumstances?
A: The main fighting happened in the east, and we were in the west. We were in Ibadan, about a 90-minute drive from Lagos, which was really the seat of power. The assassinations and the skirmishes — it was sort of dangerous. We weren't with an NGO [nongovernmental organization] or on a protected compound, or anything like that, because my father didn't want that. He didn't want anything to do with the United States.
Q: Have you been back to Nigeria?
A: My husband got a contract with the Nigerian television authority in 1982. I had a chance to go back to my old school and connect with old classmates. We're still friends with some of them on Facebook.
Q: Is it the 1960s all over again now?
A: I've been surprised at how much that time feels like this time in the world, spinning out of control. When you're 15 to 18 years old, everything is drama. Now, being almost 68, you can see the same kinds of upheaval and strife and conflict between many of the same forces that were active in the 1960s. It is history repeating.
Q: Why hasn't "Queens Girl in the World" had subsequent productions elsewhere?
A: Within the last week I've had an inquiry I'm very excited about. I've been shy, because I feel it's still flawed. When I finished, I said I'd never write a semi-autobiographical piece again. I was better this time. "Queens Girl in the World" I started in 2005, and it got produced in 2015. "Queens Girl in Africa" I started in May, and the script was done in October. I had learned some important things.
Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. 202-399-7993. mosaictheater.org.
Dates: Through Feb. 4.