REVIEW: “School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play”

REVIEW: “School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play”

The high school girls of Jocelyn Bioh’s new play, which opened last week at the Lucille Lortel Theatre Off-Broadway, are so familiar. 

As they eat lunch in the cafeteria—awkward adults-in-training with their confidences and insecurities laid bare—they talk about their weight, their hair, and their skin; boys, teachers, school, college, fashion, and each other (both in front of and behind backs).

Tina Fey’s “Mean Girls” gave us a casual anthropology lesson to explain a phenomenon we all know.  Step into any high school cafeteria in America and you’ll find the mean girls—the “you can’t sit with us” Queen Bee and her coterie of workers trading compliments and insults, keeping and telling secrets, and forming and breaking alliances.

Ms. Bioh adds a twist, placing the familiar “mean girls” construct in a place we don’t all know: Ghana.  And the result is simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking.

School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play”, produced by MCC Theater following its development as part of their PlayLabs series last year, marks a memorable New York debut for its Ghanaian-American playwright who is “passionate about telling African stories”.  After seeing this ravishing new play, I am eager and excited to follow Ms. Bioh wherever she takes us next.  For far too long, the voices of women—and particularly women of color—have been absent from the stage.  “School Girls” is a delightful gift and a joy to behold.

It’s 1986 at the Aburi Girls Boarding School in the mountains of Central Ghana, and “Queen Bee” Paulina (MaameYaa Boafo), the nerdy Ama (Níkẹ Kadri), the overweight Nana (Abena Mensah-Bonsu), mercurial cousins Gifty (Paige Gilbert) and Mercy (Mirirai Sithole), and the new girl, Ericka (Nabiyah Be), are angling for the chance to be selected to compete as Miss Ghana in the Miss Global Universe pageant.  As members of (er the entire) show choir, they’ve worked on a rendition of Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” while watching their weight, practicing Q&A, and deciding upon dresses.

A testament to the excellence of Ms. Bioh’s writing and the clarity of Rebecca Taichman’s (“Indecent”, “Time and the Conways”) direction, from the very start of the play, each of these girls is clearly defined, and then receives a compelling arc over the ensuing 75 minutes.  The performances, all around, are sublime; each actor perfectly cast and forming an ensemble so natural and authentic, you forget you are watching a play.  These girls are so real.  I could observe their banter for hours.

Overlaying their story about the quest to compete both with each other and for Miss Ghana (“Queen Bee” Paulina has made it very clear that she’s the one who will win—in both cases), is a discourse about colorism not often seen on the stage.  Even among these African girls, in a remote mountain town in Central Ghana, there exists the pernicious belief that a lighter skin tone is more beautiful and, thus, desirable.  Eloise Amponsah (Zainab Jah), Aburi Girls Boarding School alumna and Miss Ghana 1966, thinks so, too.  As the scout for the 1986 competition, she’s determined to find the right girl to represent Ghana, and she doesn’t want her to be a “darkie” (I literally gasped when that word was uttered on stage). 

This exploration of our notions and ideals of beauty, and both the empowering and corrosive impacts of beauty pageants, lends the play a powerful, but never ham-fisted, resonance.  Ms. Bioh shines a light on the harsh reality of how colorism infects society, delivered from the vantage point of those most vulnerable: teenage girls.  Her commentary also extends to address our contemporary obsession with material possessions as symbols of wealth, power, and status.  These African girls fawn over a Calvin Klein dress and the latest Nike sneakers, their desire to be fashionable and look like the women in the magazines and in the pageants ringing familiar. 

Of course, each of the girls is radiantly beautiful as they are, and it is painfully tragic to see them think otherwise.  This is the world of 1986.  In 2017, are we doing better?

Bottom Line: “School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play” is a must-see this fall season.  Uproariously funny, deeply touching, and quietly heartbreaking, it gives a rare voice to young African women on stage, and marks a stunning New York debut for Ghanaian-American playwright Jocelyn Bioh.

School Girls; or the African Mean Girls Play
MCC Theater at
The Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street
New York, NY 10014

Running Time: 75 minutes
Opening Night: November 16, 2017
Final Performance: December 23, 2017

tl;dr for November 20th

NOTES: The New York Pops celebrate “Women of Notes”

NOTES: The New York Pops celebrate “Women of Notes”