“Jubilant!” Strange word to describe a play about skin tones, a mean girl with a foul mouth, and the lasting affects of colonialism. Yet, no other word works when it comes to School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play, which takes a page from that other Mean Girls, as maybe you guessed, to navigate the lives of adolescents as they negotiate a place in their social circle and the larger world. A world where the sun rises and sets in the West with all its whiteness.
No one is more aware of this than the beautiful, gazelle-like Paulina (Kashayna Johnson), the Regina George of a tight-knit group of teens at an all-girls boarding school in 1986 in Ghana run by Headmistress Francis (Theresa Cunningham). Paulina decides who in the clique comes and goes, what they eat, wear, and should weigh, particularly Nana (Jade Jones), a sweet, rotund girl, easily blackmailed into doing Paulina’s dirty-work. Then there are cousins Gifty (Moriamo Temidayo Akibu) and Mercy (Debora Crabbe)—a comedy duo in the making—and Paulina’s best friend, Ama (Awa Sal Secka). She’s got gall. Enough to call bullshit when it comes to push and shove, which will happen.
Mean girls always push and shove until they break. It’s science. The breaking point is a new girl: the light-skinned, Ghanaian-born, American-raised Erica (Claire Saunders). Her appearance coincides with tryouts for the Miss Ghana pageant in front of recruiter Eloise (Shirine Babb) who admits that “darkies” won’t put Ghana on the world stage, which she covets. She needs “commercial and universal.” For Paulina, who dreams of being Miss Ghana, her place in the world now seems grim. And, the science of mean girls also tells us that desperate mean girls do desperate things.
“So, Erica, do you have a boyfriend?” Paulina asks right after the frenemies meet.” ‘Cause I do.” The claws are out. The gauntlet has been thrown. Pick a metaphor. The point is—game on. Go for the catfight.
The idea of girls tearing down girls is not new. Heathers—another cult classic about the angst and ennui of destructive clique culture—did it in the 1980s, long before Tina Fey’s take in 2004 (worth noting that both Heathers and Mean Girls have been made into musicals).
School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play closes October 20, 2019.
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School Girls, however, adds color and ethnicity and country into the mix, complicating coming-of-age with skin pigment and birth origin; in 2019 America, we should all be well aware by now that both matter. School Girls isn’t just a coming-of-age comedy or even social commentary. It’s a look at the forces that dominate global culture using familiar lenses, including pop culture, through which and to which we can all relate, forcing us to acknowledge that not only have we left most people out of the conversation, but that we have made them feel unworthy to even join because of appearance.
Playwright Jocelyn Bioh has wonderfully captured this truth—with humor and heart in a lively 90 minutes—and I hope that it sticks for whoever sees the play. For me, it’s a notion burrowed deep in my bone marrow. I first learned it while living in Madagascar, where the Malagasy always touched my skin and hair—just as Gifty, Mercy, Ama, and Nana praise Erica when she arrives, asking her how she gets and keeps her skin that color. They also pull at her loose, long curls. This is what they see on TV. All they see around them—in power, as models, the ones with success. To be white is to be anything. To be everything. To be seen and to matter.
This sounds serious—and it is—and yet, you’ll never see a funnier rendition of “The Greatest Love of All.” Think Star Search meets your local county fair featuring dueling banjos in the form of voices à la Erica and Paulina. And the zingers about Walmart and Calvin “Clean” being high-fashion or White Castle being, somehow, excellent American cuisine. Superb writing that also highlights the best of cultural misunderstandings, all delivered with an excellent cast. I’ve saved them for last, as they are truly sublime.
Johnson is a brilliant antagonist in that you never want to root for her. I mean, Paulina calls sweet Nana ‘fat cow’ more than once—and, yet, she is a product of her environment who deserves your sympathy, even if she is a toxic personality by nature. Saunders’ Erica has a moment of antagonism as well in which you can’t help but pity her choices. She’s a bubbly girl who, while having been dealt a better hand than her new friends, struggles more than they realize. Cunningham brings gravitas, and fancy footwork, to Headmistress Francis, and Babb is frighteningly frivolous and menacing. But, Crabbe, Jones, Akibu, and Secka are equal standouts. They drive the play with their dialogue, providing much of the snap and authenticity that makes it feel so reflexive. Secka’s Ama is the moral fiber of the group, and Jones’ Nana is the tender heart, and both have a lot of grit that is lovely to watch play out.
School Girls; or, the Africa Mean Girls Play is the perfect play. Good laughs arriving at clipped speed. Lessons on culture differences. Searing commentary on how color has shaped, and continues to shape, global participation. Pop culture galore (Bobby Brown! Whitney Houston!). A set design that features the blue paint found on buildings throughout multiple African nations. The cast to end all casts. Remarkable writing and directing by Nicole A. Watson. Bravo. And slow clap. What a jubilant, joyous, one-of-a-kind show.
School Girls; or, the Africa Mean Girls Play by Jocelyn Bioh. Directed by Nicole A. Watson. Written Featuring Kashayna Johnson, Debora Crabbe, Jade Jones, Moriamo Temidayo Akibu, Awa Sal Secka, Theresa Cunningham, Claire Saunders, and Shirine Babb. Production: Paige Hathaway, Scenic Designer; Ivania Stack, Costume Designer; Martha Mountain, Lighting Designer; Tosin Olufolabi, Sound Designer; Kevin McAllister, Music Director; Kim James Bey, Dialect Coach; Kasey Hendricks, Props Master; Casey Kaleba, Fight Choreographer; Gabrielle Hoyt, Dramaturg; and Agyeiwaa Asante, Assistant Director. Stage Managed by Che Wernsman. Produced by Round House Theatre. Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.