BWW Review: SCHOOL GIRLS; OR, THE AFRICAN MEAN GIRLS PLAY: Light Privilege
School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play
Written by Jocelyn Bioh, Directed by Summer L. Williams; Scenic Design, Baron E. Pugh; Costume Design, Miranda Kau Giurleo; Lighting Design, Devorah Kengmana; Sound Design, Allyssa Jones; Props Master, Kaitlyn Burke; Production Stage Manager, L. Arkansas Light; Assistant Stage Manager, Audrey Seraphin; Teaching Artist, Crystin Gilmore; Ghanaian Culture Consultant, Evelyn Abayaah
Performances through May 25 at SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Boston Center for the Arts, Calderwood Pavilion, Roberts Studio Theatre, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.SpeakEasyStage.com
Five teenage girls in their boarding school uniforms are crowded around a table in the cafeteria, mesmerized by the only one chowing down on her porridge. The leader of the crew looks on, mouth agape with disgust, before she begins her verbal attack, aimed at shaming the eater and riling up the other three to join her harangue. Then, the leader offers a hobson's choice: "So...do you want to be fat-fat? Or fit and popular?" What's a girl to do? Stand up for herself and be ostracized, or cave in to the pressure and follow the leader? Welcome to the world of adolescence and the domain of the mean girls. There's just one twist, because this familiar all-American scene is playing out in Ghana.
SpeakEasy Stage Company presents the New England premiere of the 2018 Lucille Lortel Award-winner for Outstanding Play (tie), Jocelyn Bioh's School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play, directed by Summer L. Williams. A Ghanaian-American playwright, Bioh sets the play in 1986 at a top boarding school in Ghana. The action centers on self-anointed queen bee Paulina (Ireon Roach) who aspires to win the Miss Ghana Beauty Pageant in order to represent her country in the coveted Miss Global Universe Pageant. When Headmistress Francis (Crystin Gilmore) introduces Ericka (Victoria Byrd), a new student from Ohio, just before the audition, Paulina is unexpectedly faced with a formidable challenger, not just for the competition, but also for the attentions and loyalty of her crew.
Although she hides her claws in a velvet glove, there are no limits on the lengths to which Paulina is willing to go to achieve her goal. When she meets the pageant recruiter, Eloise Amponsah, an alumna of the school and Miss Ghana 1966 (Kris Sidberry), Paulina is poised and polite, but Eloise is determined to choose a winning candidate and she is taken by Ericka's light skin and beauty. Paulina's singing talent and years of preparation are for naught, her dark skin being a non-starter for Eloise. Having nothing else to lose, the gloves come off and Paulina unleashes a fusillade of accusations to try to tear down Ericka. The other girls are caught in the middle, Eloise is slack-jawed, and the infuriated Headmistress must step into the fray to sort it all out.
The cynical resolution is unexpected, but shows that Bioh is not afraid to hold a mirror up to the world of pageantry, the challenges and difficult choices facing resource-poor academic institutions, and the unfortunate realities of colorism, discrimination based on skin color. The playwright was inspired to write School Girls when she read about an American-born, biracial woman who had been crowned Miss Ghana 2011. Bioh's own mother attended an all-girl boarding school when she was growing up in Ghana and had shared many tales about her experience. Combining the two influences provided a narrative that delves into important themes, while allowing Bioh to use her comedic writing skills to create her characters and frame the story.
The members of the cast inhabit their characters, authentically portraying the ups and downs of life in the peer-pressured, popular crew. Roach is a commanding presence, apparently relishing her place at the top of the heap. She struts and preens, she narrows her eyes, she alternately strokes and bullies, and no matter which side of Paulina she is showing, she embraces her diva quality. Shanelle Chloe Villegas' Nana bears the brunt of Paulina's shaming and bullying, and she evokes our sympathy from the start. Her character is stuck between a rock and a hard place, but gradually finds her way out of the cocoon to become her own person. Sabrina Victor (Ama) gives a solid performance as Paulina's best friend, perhaps more able to call her on her shortcomings and willing to speak up for her other friends. Tenneh Sillah (Mercy) and Geraldine Bogard (Gifty) are both amusing and sincere.
Byrd captures the recognizable traits of the new girl in the school, smiling a lot and reaching out with what she has to offer the other girls, while trying not to show off. She lets us know she wants to fit in and not make waves, but she is not afraid to push back at Paulina. When the two finally face off, Roach and Byrd are both terrific in their emotional altercation. Of the two adults in the room, Sidberry's Eloise may have grown older, but she has not outgrown her adolescent selfishness. She boasts of her past glories and flaunts her fading beauty like a talisman that will make her wishes come true. Headmistress is professional and serious about her job, but Gilmore infuses her with spirit and humanity, suggesting the girl she used to be.
Williams does a good job of hitting all the right notes to keep the comedy humming, while the deeper themes ride along on an underscore. During scene changes, she adds music as the girls rearrange the furniture and then pop up to dance in the window openings of the backdrop. Baron E. Pugh's scenic design is the lunch room with painted walls, linoleum floor, and notices on a bulletin board. Devorah Kengmana (lighting design) and Allyssa Jones (sound design) add mood and passage of time. The girls wear school uniforms throughout most of the play, but change to a range of fancy dresses for the pageant audition (costume design, Miranda Kau Giurleo). Headmistress dons traditional garb, and Eloise wears stylish, fashionable attire. All in all, School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play is a fun and enlightening piece of theater. And, as a bonus, it passes the Bechdel test.
Photo credit: Maggie Hall Photography (Sabrina Victor, Crystin Gilmore, Shanelle Chloe Villegas, Geraldine Bogard, Tenneh Sillah)