As the stage lights brightened on Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls or the African Mean Girls Play, I was immediately taken back to my primary and secondary school days in Lagos, Nigeria. The button up shirt and calf-length skirt school uniform sewn from fabric that seemed specifically chosen to be as unflattering as possible, the polished black shoes, thick accents, wooden tables and chairs in the cafeteria, and the school bell, the start of School Girls felt like an authentic ode to my upbringing. All that was missing was a tie and neatly cornrowed hair. Bioh in the first ten seconds had managed to capture sixteen years of my life. I was in awe.
Before attending the play, I read a couple of reviews, so I already knew what to expect. School Girls tells the story of five teenage Ghanaian girls in 1986 at Aburi Girls Senior High School in southwest Ghana who are navigating adolescence issues of wanting social acceptance. The group is led by beautiful dark-skinned and kinky haired yet mean spirited Paulina, who wants to be Miss Ghana and does not believe anyone is worthy competition, until Ericka arrives from the United States.
In comparison, Ericka is light skinned, curly haired, nice, and has an American accent. Ericka’s arrival deepens rifts within Paulina’s friend group as the other girls, Nana, Ama, Gifty, and Mercy decide they will no longer deal with Paulina’s bullying. This leaves Paulina isolated and ready to do anything including bleach her skin to be more liked by the Miss Ghana recruiter, Eloise Amponsah. Quickly, Paulina’s dream dies when she is told by Eloise, a dark skinned woman herself, that Ericka is more “commercially acceptable” and Ghana’s best chance of winning the Miss World pageant. Although Ericka does win the Miss Ghana pageant, she does not go on to win the Miss World. School Girls is a great representation of some of the difficulties of young girls growing up in a society that explicitly and inexplicitly says that whiteness is better.
I knew it was a story of colorism and the impact of colonial beauty standards on young Ghanaian girls. Regardless, something about the play did not sit well with me and I could not figure out what it was.
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For Bioh to write School Girls as a comedy is artistic genius. She raises very real issues of colorism and the lasting impact of colonialist beauty ideals in a way that gives language to and lets African people process their personal experiences. From Paulina repeatedly getting caught with bleaching cream and having to be hospitalized because of her desperation to be white to Nana being bullied for being fat and feeling like she needs to lose weight to fit in with the other girls, Bioh blends every high school girl’s adolescence experience with the reality of dealing with those things in a country marred by colonialism. She highlights the irony of young girls being aware of and irritated with the ways skin that is lighter and closer to whiteness is upheld, yet their strong desire to possess it by having scenes where all the girls critique the predominantly European top 10 finalists of the Miss World pageant and raising the issue of “White Africans”.
I wish this play had existed while I was growing up in Nigeria because it is the perfect way to talk about the impact of colorism and colonialism. Growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, I benefited from lighter skinned privilege meaning that because my skin color was closer to whiteness, I was considered pretty, consistently received compliments on my appearance, and people wanted to be my friend. While I may not remember a concrete example of my lighter skin benefitting me, it would be naïve to say that my lighter skin did not open doors for me, give me access to resources, or make fitting in when I switched schools multiple times easier in a way that my darker skinned friends did not experience.
Bioh does a great job of critiquing Whiteness and showing the ridiculousness of aspiring to European beauty standards, while humanizing the African girl experience. The School Girls play says that it is okay to feel like you need to be whiter before society can accept you or you can progress. It is not your fault. Let’s talk about it and this play is how we can talk about it. At the same time, know that you are not the only one who feels this. School Girls makes it easy to talk about a really difficult issue.
About halfway through the play, I figured out what was not sitting well with me: the audience. I looked around me and realized that School Girls was being consumed by a predominantly White group. In her interview with the New York Times, Bioh insists on telling “stories about African and African-American characters that buck expectation and defy stereotype.” Yet, I have to ask “By writing Paulina and Eloise Amponsah as darker skinned people who, despite their power and status in society, remain insecure and obsessed with Whiteness to be consumed by a predominantly white audience, what stereotype is defied?”
School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play closes October 20, 2019. Details and tickets
The play ends with an ambiguousness that leans towards all characters accepting that irrespective of how close they are in contact with Whiteness through American clothes, food, books, and even hair products, they will never be white enough. There is no explicit moment of all characters vehemently rejecting whiteness and colonialist beauty standards. This leaves School Girls feeding into the narrative that dark skinned girls grow up to be darker skinned women who will never see beauty in themselves or be content unless they become white. It manages to leave White people with a single story that darker skinned girls and women want to be white, without really showing that there are darker skinned girls and women who are actively resisting European colonial beauty standards and colorism.
School Girls lets White people laugh away the damage done by colorism and colonialism to the self-esteem of many young African girls. It fails to leave White people feeling responsible for the ways they uphold structures and systems in society – in the United States and around the world – that make it okay to believe whiteness is better. But colorism is not funny and living in a society that values and encourages everyone to aspire to European standards of beauty is harmful to everyone in it.
It raises the question: In a country like the United States where color and race have been at the forefront of conversation since its existence and have determined social mobility and access to resources, is it okay to write a comedic play about colorism, colonialism, and westernization? Do the White people who consume it understand the impact of colorism, the ways it shows up every day, and do they feel the urgency to undo it?
I recognize that it is not possible to control who consumes your art and it is unfair to self-censor your art based on who you think may consume it. Regardless, School Girls leaves me wondering about balancing artistic responsibility and freedom. Most importantly, it leaves me hoping that this play is performed across the African continent because every African girl deserves to see it. From the script to the acting to the set, it is truly a healing experience and we deserve to be healed from whiteness.