Jocelyn Bioh's biting comedy plays until April 7 at NextStop Theatre

By: Mar. 18, 2024
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SCHOOL GIRLS; OR: THE AFRICAN MEAN GIRLS PLAY, now playing at Virginia’s NextStop Theatre, tells the story of a group of students at an all-girls school in Ghana in 1986 who dream of winning the prestigious Miss Ghana pageant and, eventually, competing for Miss Global Universe. Described as “a buoyant and biting comedy,” the play invites us to watch the dynamics of these teenage girls as they navigate jealousy, heartbreak, deception, loyalty, and the overwhelming need to simply be seen. As is common with other plays by the fantastic Jocelyn Bioh (NOLLYWOOD DREAMS, JAJA’S AFRICAN HAIR BRAIDING), the comedy is contrasted with a healthy dose of drama as well. Bioh’s talent is balancing both, and SCHOOL GIRLS is no exception. 

The play begins in the cafeteria of an exclusive, all-girls boarding school in Ghana. We’re introduced to Ama (Simone Brown), Mercy (Edima Essien), Nana (Aja Goode), and Gifty (Nicole Ruthmarie), who are all students of the school. These four friends are buzzing with anticipation over their shot to qualify for the Miss Ghana pageant despite the common knowledge that their classmate, Paulina (Khanner Hancock), is the favorite to represent their school at the competition. 

Paulina has all the makings of a pageant queen - she’s pretty, fit, smart, popular, and charismatic. However, much of this is superficial as Paulina is quite nasty to her peers. She’s the “queen bee” of the school and treats the other four girls like her subjects (ala Regina George of Tina Fey’s 2004 hit film, MEAN GIRLS). She’s manipulative and controlling and takes every opportunity to let the other girls know their place. 

Paulina’s supremacy is challenged, however, once Ericka (Caitlin Frazier) arrives at the school as a transfer student straight from the United States. Ericka’s father owns a well-known cocoa factory, and she’s now moved to Ghana to come live with him. Ericka signs up for the Miss Ghana competition as a way to fit in and make friends, as she says. However, she’s blissfully unaware (at first) of the tension this creates with Paulina, who properly identifies the new light-skinned girl as a threat. 

Then, a Miss Ghana recruiter, named Eloise (Pauline Lamb), arrives and changes everything. Eloise, an alumnus of the school and former Miss Ghana 1966, knows what it takes to not only win Miss Ghana but compete on the worldwide stage. As Eloise explains, African girls only catch the attention of the judges when they possess all the qualities of an impressive young woman - and also have lighter skin. Therefore, it’s Ericka, a girl with a white mother and black father, and not the darker-skinned Paulina that she favors. 

Despite the objections of the school’s Headmistress (Brenda Parker), Eloise insists it must be Ericka. Also, there are financial incentives here. If a girl from this school wins Miss Ghana and the international competition, there’s a hefty cash prize for the school and a nice promotion for Eloise for “discovering” the girl. Therefore, Eloise wants the girl who she thinks will have the best chance on the international stage.

It’s at this moment where the play presents its central juxtaposition. While we do not like Paulina because she is truly awful to seemingly everyone, we sympathize with her as the victim of blatant racism by her own people. American audiences aren’t usually confronted with racism within marginalized communities on stage, and it's part of what has made Bioh’s voice so welcomed in the industry. 

To complicate matters further, and much like Tina Fey’s film of a similar name, Erika isn’t exactly innocent here. Much like the Cady Heron in Fey’s film, Erika doesn’t resist the temptation to “get in the mud” with Paulina. She’s equally as nasty, cruel, and deceptive as Paulina. In fact, all the girls take turns acting the same. 

As is often the case in reality, it’s impossible to choose a villain and a hero, and perhaps that’s the point. We’re all flawed, messy humans (especially in our adolescence), and it causes the audience to have very conflicted feelings by the play’s conclusion. You will have to buy a ticket to find out exactly how this all plays out, but trust that the material is engaging from start to finish. 

Though Bioh’s script is top-notch, the cast doesn’t quite hit the mark to fully make the piece live up to its potential. The four characters who function essentially as the play’s ensemble - Ama, Mercy, Nana, and Gifty - do well enough with their respective roles but don’t always execute the comedy. Comedic opportunities are either sped-through before the audience has a chance to react or played up too heavily for laughs. Neither scenario takes advantage of the excellent script.

As the queen bee of this ensemble, Hancock’s Paulina doesn’t quite possess the heft and confidence needed to let us know she’s the boss. Hancock struggles to take ownership of the room in the play’s early scenes, which makes the slow erosion of her power in the later scenes less impactful. Thankfully, Hancock is much stronger once Paulina is revealed as a scared, insecure, and pressured teenage girl just trying to find her way among a sea of societal obstacles. 

Caitlin Frazier as Ericka serves as a good enough adversary to Paulina and plays the early scenes quite well. However, it’s such a jarring switch when Ericka becomes mean and nasty, and one wonders if a more gradual transition would have given the character more depth. In contrast to Hancock, Frazier is more comfortable with the lighter moments than the drama.

As the Headmistress, Brenda Parker is arguably the company’s strongest. She’s a warm hug of a character who fully embraces the role of not only the leader of the school but of the mother figure to the student body. Parker’s character arc is well-written and executed just as skillfully. 

As Eloise, Pauline Lamb understands that everything is a show. She does well to show that everything about Eloise’s presence is heightened - she is a former pageant queen after all - but Lamb struggles with the moments that require the character to be more nuanced and drop the facade. Bioh wants us to see both sides of Eloise, but this doesn’t come through here. Lamb gives an energetic performance and is entertaining but is ultimately a bit stagnant throughout. 

Despite some of the shortcomings above, the play is still inherently a strong piece of theatre. The American theatre has many brilliant contemporary playwrights, and Bioh is arguably one of the best of our time. She has made a career off centering stories on the African continent and has exposed American audiences to a myriad of cultures throughout. For that reason alone, one should not miss an opportunity to see her work in the DMV, and that means buying a ticket to NextStop’s production before it closes in April. 

SCHOOL GIRLS; OR: THE AFRICAN MEAN GIRLS PLAY is playing at Virginia’s NextStop Theatre Company from now until April 7, 2024. Creative team members include Rikki Howie Lacewell (Director), Jack Golden (Scenic Designer), Hailey LaRoe (Lighting Designer), Imari Pyles (Costume Designer), Martin Bernier (Properties Designer), Brandon Cook (Sound Designer), Nana Ekua Brew-Hammon (Dialect Coach), Ryan Anthony (Stage Manager), Valeria Rodriguez (Assistant Stage Manager), and Jack Wilson (Technical Director).

The play is approximately 1.5 hours with no intermission.

PHOTO CREDIT (from L to R): Aja Goode as NaNa, Nicole Ruthmarie as Gifty, Edima Essien as Mercy, Caitlin Frazier as Ericka, Simone Browne as Ama, and Khanner Hancock as Paulina. Photo by Daniel Corey Photography.


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