CAMBRIDGE — At the outset of “Queens Girl in the World,” Erickson Street in East Elmhurst, N.Y., is the center of young Jacqueline Marie Butler’s universe — it’s where she reads Nancy Drew mysteries and chats with her neighborhood friend Persephone. Adolescence is a ripe time for self-discovery, and “Queens Girl in the World,” a solo show starring Jasmine M. Rush, depicts the journey of Jacqueline, a young Black woman growing up in the 1960s. The action takes place from June 1962 through late 1964, with the changes in Jacqueline’s life echoed by the civil rights movement coming into full flower and the country going through tumults. When the audience meets her, Jacqueline is a young girl with big dreams of being a writer, one who’s trying to learn the fad dances of the day and slightly horrified by the ways Persephone and her mother describe her looming coming of age to her.
But that’s not the only change Jacqueline will be undergoing in the play, now at Central Square Theater through Oct. 31 in a co-production of the Nora@Central Square Theater, the Front Porch Arts Collective, and the Hangar Theater. The relationship between Jacqueline and her mother, Grace Lofton Butler, is at the forefront of “Queens Girl,” with Jacqueline viewing her mother almost in awe, even as she feels hemmed in by the rules under which she lives. Early in the play, Grace takes Jacqueline into Manhattan to visit the Museum of Modern Art, ascribing an outfit for her daughter. But Jacqueline doesn’t mind: “Even though I’m wearing baby-looking white anklets,” she notes, “I’m proud walking next to beautiful Grace Lofton Butler.” Grace’s attempts to shield Jacqueline from external cruelties, particularly those she will experience as a Black girl, while opening her up to life’s potential for beauty are the main driving force behind the play’s plot.
Grace is behind the big opening of Jacqueline’s view, taking her out of her local public school and sending her to the Irwin School, located a long subway ride away in Greenwich Village. The Irwin School has a slew of new, mostly white classmates presenting new challenges for Jacqueline, who’s reconciling the comfort she feels at home with the bonds she’s developing with people in her new school, as well as the increasingly present viciousness of the world at large.
Rush is given the task of inhabiting Jacqueline and those around her, and she does so with gusto and precision — nailing the adenoidal huff of a braces-wearing school friend, the practiced cool of Jacqueline’s bike-riding, comic-reading first boyfriend, and the haughty yet warmly loving tone of Jacqueline’s mother, Grace. Rush offers a subtle delineation in stance and voice between Jacqueline, the still-awkward girl, and “JMB,” the play’s more knowing narrator, but even in those moments where Rush is channeling the younger version of Jacqueline, there’s a poetry to her language that hints at her destiny of being a writer — one of the many points where the audience notices the finesse of playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings’s prose.
The set, designed by Diggle, is stark, highlighting the front stoop that for so long was the focal point of Jacqueline’s life, as well as a single swing. Rush bounds around and saunters through the stage, depending on which character she’s playing. Early in the play, the sounds that come into focus are pop songs — “Sea of Love,” “Blue Moon” — but as the news becomes more dire, snippets of broadcasts from the early ‘60s about racial unrest and the country’s growing turmoil float into the play’s orbit.
“Queens Girl in the World” is fast-paced and funny, with plot lines that feel taken from diary entries and a heroine whose curiosity and pluck make her easy to root for. Rush’s multifaceted performance, and Dawn M. Simmons’s keenly sensitive direction, help Jennings’s play shed light on how the headlines and breaking-news broadcasts that rang through America six decades ago could reverberate through the life of one Black girl.
QUEENS GIRL IN THE WORLD
Play by Caleen Sinnette Jennings. Directed by Dawn M. Simmons. Co-produced by The Nora@Central Square Theater, the Front Porch Arts Collective, and the Hangar Theater. At Central Square Theater, Cambridge, through Oct. 31. Tickets $25-$64. 617-576-9278, centralsquaretheater.org