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BWW Review: The Garden Theatre's SCHOOL GIRLS; OR THE AFRICAN MEAN GIRLS PLAY is a Great Collection of Talent

The production runs from now thru Sunday, May 8th

BWW Review: The Garden Theatre's SCHOOL GIRLS; OR THE AFRICAN MEAN GIRLS PLAY is a Great Collection of Talent
The full cast of School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play. Photo by Pin Lim.

Jocelyn Bioh's play, School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play, is one of the best examples of 21st-Century Theater. Set in an all-girls boarding school in the African country of Ghana. School Girls follows the story of a group of young women navigating their social life in the face of adversity. The school's Queen Bee is Paulina (Tara Okopie), who loves to laud over her classmates about her apparent luck in life. Paulina has a boyfriend and family in America. According to herself, she is the most beautiful girl in all of Ghana. Her friends, the hilarious cousin's Gifty (Rachel Omotoso) and Mercy (Cynthia Thomas-Calhoun), Nana (Jaelyn Merchant), and frenemy Ama (Ansonia E. Jones), all act as if Paulina is correct in her assumptions about her life. Although secretly find disdain in their friendship with the queen. The school's Headmistress and former pupil of the academy, Francis (Agnes "Aggie B" Balka), tries her absolute best to steer the young ladies in the right moral direction. However, Paulina's obsession with winning Miss Ghana 1986 and competing at the Miss Global Universe pageant is the beginning of her undoing as queen bee. When Miss Ghana's recruiter, Eloise Amponsah (Tamara Brown), and new student, Ericka Boafo (Andrea Riles), come to the school, drama ensues and creates chaos for everyone. Bioh's School Girls explores what it means to have so much emotion and what it means when all the drama that happened yields no results.

BWW Review: The Garden Theatre's SCHOOL GIRLS; OR THE AFRICAN MEAN GIRLS PLAY is a Great Collection of Talent
Andrea Riles and Tara Okopie in their pageant dresses for School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play. Photo by Pin Lim.

The Garden Theatre's production currently running at MATCH is truly a feast of incredibly talented actors. Anosina E. Jones, as Paulina's frenemy and "smart" one of the friend group, Ama, is endearing and captivating. When Jones performs, you can feel the emotion leave her body and ricochet off the walls. The comedic stylings of both Rachel Omotoso and Cynthia Thomas-Calhoun are more than worth the price of admission. I found myself laughing not only at their lines but also at the delivery. As an audience member, look for the small things with these two. Their small actions build nuanced characters that anyone can relate to. On opening night, several women audibly rejoiced when the mention of children's author Judy Blume arose between the two characters. Jaelyn Merchant's portrayal of the "chubby girl" Nana is sweet. As Merchant plays the character with so much realism, it is almost impossible not to find your high school self within their performance. While I am the son of educators, Aggie B's performance as the school's Headmistress was faithful to the plight of educators in the world. Aggie B plays the Headmistress as if she is genuinely the teenager's guidance counselor, teacher, principal, and most importantly, mother.

Both Tara Okopie and Andrea Riles give fine performances as the wannabe queen bees Paulina and Ericka. However, where Okopie's Paulina falters is how unlikeable the character is. Maybe this is from the direction, perhaps character choice, but Paulina is meant to be a villain you love to hate. For example, in the movie Mean Girls, Regina George is iconic because of her meanness and how much you love to hate her. This type of performance leads to some sympathy when the character's backstory is revealed. Unfortunately, with her tragic backstory, Paulina is hard to feel sorry for in some ways. Riles's performance as the school's newcomer, Ericka, is well done but fails to find footing. Sometimes Ericka is nerdy and awkward. Other times she is confident. While this is not unrealistic, from my personal standpoint, it was difficult rooting for another girl doing mean-girl things to be vengeful. Both Riles and Okopie are fantastic actors and deserve praise for their performances. I believe with time, we will see both of these young women blossom into power-house actors.

One final performance quandary was the depiction of Miss Ghana 1966 and pageant recruiter of Eloise Amponsah by Tamara Brown. Bioh's Eloise, in some instances, is meant to be the older dignified pageant girl who never grew out of her mean streak. Unfortunately, Tamara Brown's character performance does not read as being mean but instead forgetful. Brown will be more successful in the role of Miss Ghana 1966 when they settle into the role as the production continues performances.

The production's design elements are mixed as each piece finds its own footing in the show. The costume design by Ya-Ya Smith for the schoolgirls and their headmistress is a beautiful blend of color. When the girls enter the stage, it is striking to watch them enter with their multi-colored skirts and blue polo uniforms. The lighting design by Edgar Guajardo is effective as it is bright mainly inside the school, mimicking the natural sunlight of an outdoor cafeteria. Where the design can improve is the set by Nicholas White. While colorful and evokes a similar multi-color feel, the set felt unfinished. There is a moment in Act II where the young women wheel in a television, and the loud bang from hitting the small piece of the doorway in the set took a few patrons out of the moment. While reading the playbill, I believe this is maybe one of White's earlier outings. Hopefully, his next production with The Garden will illicit a better set.

BWW Review: The Garden Theatre's SCHOOL GIRLS; OR THE AFRICAN MEAN GIRLS PLAY is a Great Collection of Talent
Full cast of School Girls; or the African Mean Girls Play. Photo by Pin Lim.

Overall the production is one to watch and worth the price of admission. The Garden Theatre has done a fantastic job this season by doing interesting works, and only time will tell whether the Garden Theatre will see future success. I personally hope this fledgling theater company continues to improve and do more amazing productions as they already have. Their next season looks promising and I wish nothing but success for their future endeavors. While School Girls may not have been the best of productions and there is room for improvement, Houston theatre would be remiss if the Garden Theatre was not around for it is truly a growing diamond in the scene.

School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play by Jocelyn Bioh from The Garden Theatre runs from Friday, April 29th to Sunday, May 8th. Thursday evening performances are at 7:30, Friday and Saturday evenings are 8:00, with matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2:00pm. Tickets can be bought at https://matchouston.org/events/2022/school-girls-or-african-mean-girls-play or at the MATCH Box Office 3400 Main St. Masks are a requirement at this particular event.



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