For much of her life, the playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings couldn’t find a community to which she belonged.
She was too elite for the rough and tumble Queens neighborhood where she grew up. She was too black and educationally disadvantaged for her private middle school. She was too American and too privileged for Nigeria, where she spent her teen years with her parents.
She was too middle-class, too outspoken, too radical, too -- the opposite of whoever she thought she was supposed to be. Jennings, who is African American, even learned to her chagrin that friends in Nigeria, where she attended high school, referred to her as “oyinbo” — the term for “white foreigner.”
“In adolescence, you desperately want to fit in and I never did,” said the 68-year-old playwright, who lives now with her husband in Montgomery County. “ I thought something was wrong with me, having to constantly go back and forth between those two very different worlds. I could feel myself constantly adjusting everything about myself. I felt phony.”
She has channeled her discomfort into writing two autobiographically-inspired plays running through June 23 at Everyman Theatre.
“Queens Girl in the World” follows young Jacqueline Marie Butler (the playwright’s alter ego) from age 12 to 15 as she is abruptly yanked from her neighborhood school and enrolled in a liberal, progressive educational institution in Manhattan, where she is one of just four African American students and one of the few who aren’t Jewish.
That play ends where “Queens Girl in Africa,” begins, aboard a ship bound for Nigeria. The sequel recounts Jackie’s high school years in Africa, where her family flees to escape the violence in the U.S. (Her father was in the Audubon Ballroom on Feb. 21, 1965, when family friend Malcolm X was assassinated.) Two years after Jackie and her parents arrived, the short-lived Republic of Biafra seceded from Nigeria, sparking a brutal civil war.
Though the global upheaval of the 1960s features prominently in both plays, the shows also are funny and frequently light-hearted. (For instance, Jackie goes overnight from being the worst dancer at her all-black middle school to being the best dancer in her mostly white private school.)
“Caleen has an amazing capacity to craft a narrative that both speaks about broad social change and that also has a specific point of view,” said Jojo Ruff, managing director of Washington’s Theater J, where “Queens Girl in the World” was originally performed during the 2015 Women’s Voices Theater Festival in Washington.
“All of those things — from the Civil Rights Movement to worrying about wearing her hair the right way — influenced her evolution as an adolescent and helped her find her place in the world.”
Each show has a cast of one actor who plays more than a dozen roles, and whose portrayals of Jackie won Helen Hayes Awards (the Washington-area equivalent of the Tony Awards) for best actress. Everyman ensemble member Dawn Ursula (who won in 2016) portrays the pre-teen Jackie in “Queens Girl in the World”, while Washington stalwart Erika Rose, (who received her best actress award May 13) depicts Jackie from age 15 to 18 in “Queens Girl in Africa”
Audience members interested in Jackie’s journey can see both shows for a discount, but company officials say that each is an independent work that stands on its own. Nor do the plays need to be seen in order.
“Jackie is a character I’d never before met on the American stage,” said Vincent Lancisi, Everyman’s founding artistic director. “She’s fascinating and endearing and she’s trying to make sense of growing up in the tumultuous 1960s.”
The sequel ends before Jackie has completed her quest, so theatergoers may wonder what happens to the young shape-shifter next.
Lancisi decided to find out. He commissioned Jennings to write a third part of the trilogy, “Queens Girl: Black in the Green Mountains,” which will feature Jackie’s years at Bennington College in rural Vermont between 1968 to 1972. That show will debut at Everyman next spring.
It was during those years, as campuses nationwide erupted in protests against the Vietnam War and the killings at Kent State University, that Jennings decided to study theater — and finally found the niche she’d been seeking.
She’d always admired her parents’ consistency; they always behaved the same way regardless of who they were with. The young Caleen had longed to be more like them. But through performing, she realized that being a chameleon wasn’t necessarily a character flaw. Her ability to easily slip into other people’s skins was paradoxically the most stable, solid and predictable thing about her.
“Every character I played had multiple sides,” Jennings said.“It was tremendously gratifying for me and a huge relief to discover that most people change depending on the circumstances and who they are with. Over time and through playing different characters and multiple roles, I discovered the core of who I was.”
Jennings now knew that she belonged in the theater world. But the theater world, unfortunately, was not persuaded. It wouldn’t be for two more decades that the notion of colorblind casting (in which the best performers are put in roles regardless of skin color) would begin to catch on. (At least, that was when colorblind casting began to catch on for black actors. White actors always have portrayed black characters. When the great Paul Robeson appeared as Othello in New York in 1943, he was the first black actor to portray the Moor on an American stage.)
“There weren’t a lot of producers in the 1960s and 1970s who would look at me and think, ‘Oh, she’d make a perfect Juliet,’” Jennings said. “And all the wonderful black theater companies coming into New York were doing plays about a very specific experience that was either urban or rural. If they looked at the middle class, it was as a source of derision or mockery.”
Jennings had been convinced that after graduating from Bennington, she would find work as an actress in New York.
“Guess what?” she said. “I worked as a temp.”
Jennings’ career might not have been taking off, but her life was. There followed a master’s degree (from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 1976), marriage (to a young jazz musician-turned-educator-turned-business-consultant) motherhood (to two sons, now grown) and a move (to Maryland’s Montgomery County, to be near her parents, who were then working at Howard University.)
“I thought I would die if I stopped acting,” Jennings said. “I loved it that much. But what happened is that I began writing plays. I used to think that acting was the biggest high you could have. But when I wrote a play, I had the experience of hearing the people in my head come alive on stage. I heard actors arguing about them and discussing them as if they were real people. And that was just awesome.”
Jennings’ plays introduced theatergoers to African American archetypes who later would be celebrated in such award-winning TV series as “The Cosby Show” and “Black-ish” — characters who graduate from college and have professional careers, characters who love classical music and Shakespeare and who struggle with issues of race and identity. Some of Jennings’ earliest work received productions by major theater companies and won prizes.
I wrote plays that I would have liked to be cast in.”— Caleen Sinnette Jennings
In 1998, Washington’s Folger Theatre produced Jennings’ “Playing Juliet/Casting ‘Othello’” The following year, Jennings received a $10,000 grant from the Kennedy Center’s Fund for New American Plays for another work, “Inns and Outs.” And in 2002, her “Classyass” was honored as the best ten-minute play produced at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville.
“I wrote about the black middle class in a way that I wanted to see portrayed on stage,” Jennings said. “I wrote plays that I would have liked to be cast in.”
After those early successes, Jennings continued to write at least one play a year. Her work was produced steadily by area theaters, though the newer plays made a more subdued splash than her earlier work. Jennings threw herself into raising her sons and into teaching; she has been a theater professor at American University in Washington, DC. for three decades. She also was one of six co-founders of The Welders, a playwrights’ collective that develops and produces members’ work.
Meanwhile, her friend and mentor, the late producer Philip Rose, had been nagging Jennings to write her autobiography. She refused, arguing that her life wasn’t that interesting.
But Rose wouldn’t let it drop. Finally, to shut him up, Jennings sat down at a writer’s retreat in 2005 and began to pen her own story, determined to prove Rose wrong.
The result, “Queens Girl in the World,” was the breakout hit of the inaugural Women’s Voices Theater Festival in 2015. You couldn’t get a ticket, Lancisi recalled, and Jennings’ play was singled out for praise in reviews that ran in The New York Times and Washington Post. Three years later, that situation was repeated when “Queens Girl in Africa” debuted at the 2018 Women’s Voices festival.
“Socially incisive,” said the Times. “Breathtakingly beautiful,” said the Post.
The Post’s critic was referring to the scene in which young Jackie gets drawn into a Nigerian dance circle. She hesitantly begins performing the spasmodic arm movements of “The Jerk,” the dance fad similar to “The Monkey” that swept the U.S. in the 1960s.
When Jackie begins dancing, her movements are awkward and disjointed. She looks — and clearly feels — all wrong. Gradually she gets pulled into the music. Her gestures become natural, relaxed and flowing. The crowd of onlookers roars its approval.
By the time the dance circle has ended, the Queens girl has found her rhythm.