BWW Review: SCHOOL GIRLS; OR, THE AFRICAN MEAN GIRLS PLAY at Portland Center Stage
Being a teenage girl is tough, especially because in every high school everywhere, there's a bully. In her award-winning play SCHOOL GIRLS; OR, THE AFRICAN MEAN GIRLS PLAY, now at Portland Center Stage in a co-production with Artists Rep, Jocelyn Bioh exports this familiar American high school movie trope to Ghana and layers it with social commentary about impossible beauty standards. It's funny, biting, and well worth seeing.
The play takes place in the cafeteria of the Aburi School for Girls, where the students are preparing to audition for the chance to become Miss Ghana, 1986. As with all high school cliques, the hierarchy at Aburi is immediately apparent. At the top is Paulina Sarpong (played by Andrea Vernae) -- who's tall, slim, pretty, and mean. She rules the rest of the group -- Mercy (Kayla Kelly), Gifty (Tonea Lolin), Nana (Treasure Lunan), and Ama (Tamera Lyn) -- by fear, telling their secrets, spreading vicious gossip, and constantly putting them down. Everyone, even Headmistress Francis (Kisha Jarrett), assumes Paulina will be selected to represent Ghana at the pageant, and Paulina never tires of talking about her soon-to-be success on the world stage, her soccer-star boyfriend, and her American relatives who send her all the latest fashions from the chicest stores. The other girls kowtow, presumably having learned long ago that Paulina is not one to be crossed.
And then a new student, Ericka Baofo, arrives, upending the social order. Ericka's father is Ghanaian and owns a chocolate company, but she's been living with her mom United States. She's also light-skinned, which brings Paulina's dark skin into stark contrast. Not only is Ericka considered beautiful simply because of her light skin, but she also appears to have all of the positive traits our society automatically assumes beautiful people possess -- she's smart, talented, and nice. She quickly steals Paulina's friends along with her chances at winning the beauty pageant.
Of course, beautiful people have secrets too, bullies aren't bullies just because, and human motivations aren't always altruistic -- a fact illustrated to devastating effect by Sara Williams, who's outstanding in the role of Eliose Amponsah, a former Aburi student who went on to become Miss Ghana, 1966.
SCHOOL GIRLS is funny. Bioh's writing is sharp and the cast brings a youthful, vibrant energy to the piece. But it also shines a piercing light on the issue of colorism (a form of discrimination that favors people with lighter skin over those with darker skin) and the damaging effects of the globalization of Western beauty standards.
SCHOOL GIRLS runs through February 16. See it not only because it's an entertaining and eye-opening play, but also for the joy of watching all of the new faces on stage -- most of the young cast is making its PCS debut. More details and tickets here.
Photo credit: Russell J. Young