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Sept. 5-29 at the Osterman Theatre, Lauren Steele plays 13 characters in one-woman show set in civil-rights era

"Queens Girl in the World," is billed as Clackamas Repertory Theatre's first one-woman show, but the solo performer on the stage won't be lonely, as she plays 13 different characters.

The hit play of the 2015 Women's Voices Theater Festival in Washington, D.C., "Queens Girl in the World," by Caleen Sinnette Jennings, is a semiautobiographical coming-of-age story about Jacqueline Marie Butler, a young black woman in Queens, New York, during the tumultuous 1960s.

Performances of the play, a West Coast premiere, take place from Sept. 5-29 at the Osterman Theatre on the campus of Clackamas Community College in Oregon City.

"The play is charming, funny, and lighthearted while addressing issues specific to African Americans that a large segment of the population has never had to negotiate," said David-Smith English, CRT artistic director. "The playwright skillfully weaves her personal story into events of the civil-rights era. Plus, we knew an extremely talented young actress we were excited to feature."

PHOTO BY DICK TRTEK - Damaris Webb, top, director of Queens Girl in the World, is pictured with Lorina Alfaro, left, Equity stage manager, and Lauren Steele, Equity actress, during a rehearsal of the play. Lauren Steele, who recently returned to Portland after graduating from Southern Methodist University, will portray 13 different characters, including Jacqueline, her Caribbean father, imperious mother, boyfriends and bullies.

Steele, the daughter of Portland blues legend LaRhonda Steele, made her Clackamas Rep debut in 2017's popular musical, Irving Berlin's "The Melody Lingers On."

Clackamas Rep's production will be directed by Damaris Webb, co-founder and director of The Vanport Mosaic, a community-driven, artist-led nonprofit dedicated to presenting, celebrating and preserving the silenced histories of the Pacific Northwest.

She coaches for PlayWrite Inc. and the August Wilson Monologue Competition.

Characters

Steele, an Equity actress, said she was excited to play characters outside her experience, but noted that once she got to characters 10, 11 and 12 she was starting to run out of ideas.

"It's been a challenge to differentiate them," she said, noting that the playwright's character descriptions have helped.

"One character has a lisp, one has a Caribbean accent and some speak with 1960s New York accents," Steele said.

The primary character she plays is Jacqueline, and all the other characters are related to her in some way, but her two favorite characters are Karen and Jacqueline.

"I love playing Karen, the one with the lisp, but the character I feel the most emotionally connected to is Jacqueline.

"I've fallen in love with her; I am connected to her story and it hits close to home."

Through rehearsing, Steele has come to realize that she can just let the characters happen.

"I am capable of doing this; I can embody (these characters)," she said.

Audiences will be able to relate to the coming-of-age story, Steele said, adding that the play is also "very sweet, very funny."

Directing

This is Webb's first full production directing for CRT, although she was in "Good People" in 2014 and directed the staged reading of "The Call."

She is appreciative that David and Cyndy Smith-English, the founders of CRT, knew that "Queens Girl" should be directed by a black woman and reached out to her.

Webb relishes the opportunity to direct newer works, and she noted that the playwright has done a "good job of making the play an intimate and accessible coming-of-age story."

At the same time, the play does not shy away from dealing with the "broader civil rights movement."

Webb noted that the playwright was in Portland earlier in the year and she got to meet her and talk to her about her life.

"It was super exciting to meet another black woman in theater and ask her how she is concerned with making sense of the world, and making it a better place," Webb said.

Memory, imagination

She hopes that audiences will appreciate using their "memory, imagination and heart" during the course of the play.

"The humor is deftly woven in to open our hearts. As with any piece of art, you bring your personal experience as points of reference; we all have those," Webb said.

"Everyone can identify with putting on different characters and finding your identity. At what point do those around us become us?"

Webb added that she has felt supported and welcomed by the team at CRT, and noted that there will be pre- and post-show lectures by Percy Hampton, a founding member of the Portland Chapter of the Black Panthers; Maude Hines, professor of English and black studies at Portland State University; and Pancho Savery, professor of English and humanities at Reed College.

Clackamas Rep also has partnered with nonprofit organization Oregon Black Pioneers to feature a curated lobby display with historical photos for patrons to enjoy before the performance.

Webb said the reason she does theater is to take a play and its themes and "open it up to the larger conversation; to figure out how to move forward."

She added, "I appreciate being able to tell black stories and applaud CRT for doing this and doing it right."

Meet the girl

What: Clackamas Repertory Theatre presents "Queens Girl in the World," by Caleen Sinnette Jennings

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, through Sept. 29. There will be a low-cost preview Sept. 5 and an opening night postshow reception in the lobby on Sept. 6.

Tickets: Purchase at clackamasrep.org or call 503-594-6047.

More: The production team includes Equity stage manager Lorina Alfaro, technical director Chris Whitten, sound designer Marcus Storey, costume designer Alva Bradford and projection designer Haley Hurita.


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