2/20/2020     SCHOOL GIRLS, OR, THE AFRICAN MEAN GIRLS PLAY     Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre

It’s 1986.  We’re in a religious private girls’ school in Ghana (the based-on-fact Aburi Girls Senior High).  Anticipation is high as the a “talent scout” for the Miss Ghana pageant is enroute.  “Queen Bee” Paulina (aka he meanest of the girls) expects to be swept into championship, expects to go to the Miss Global Universe finals, meet R&B icon Bobby Brown (1986, remember), and live happily ever after(*).  Then new student Ericka, the daughter of mixed-race parents, with a “more universal and commercial look” (aka, lighter-skinned) comes in and throws a fly into the bleaching cream.


Such is the set-up of Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls (or The African Mean Girls Play), a tight little comedy that takes direct aim at Euro-based standards of beauty, tempering its focus with commentary on colonialism, adolescent angst and hierarchies, beauty pageants, and societal classism.  It gets most of its comedic mileage out of our recognition of its American analogues and off-the-mark allusions (White Castle is a real castle with food, the best Calvin Klean couture comes from Chinatown, and prestige shopping at Wal-Mart, for example).


This production has been (unfairly IMHO) dismissed by the AJC as “too slight” to sustain “deeper thoughts,” and “raising pertinent questions that could have been better answered in a full-length, two-act play”.  This is a “too slight” reaction made by someone who would prefer to judge a production, rather than to engage with it.  School Girls is anything but “slight,” providing deep

“back story” to its main antagonists that upend our initial impressions, leaving a complex reaction that retains our sympathy even as we condemn their actions and words.  And it is not the play’s intentions to answer the questions it raises.  If it had, I would have dismissed it as facile and “tie it all up with a bow” contrived.  These are questions that have no answers, at least no easy answers that would satisfy even in a (much) longer piece.  That they are rarely raised at all gives Ms. Bioh’s piece significance, relevance, and power.


These characters inhabit the “Mean Girls” universe, unthinkably cruel, devoted to “being popular”, loyal only to those who won’t hurt, yet most grow during the course of the play’s brisk 70 minutes, come to accept friendship as an alternate to control, and even “Warrior Bond” to support each other in the face of overwhelming pressures and injustices.  This is not a “slight” and insignificant aim.  It is not a “slight” accomplishment.


Centering this cast is Ellen Ifeoluwa George as Paulina, despicably cruel at first, impressively bold as we learn more of her history and her “world.”  Lauren Richards plays Ericka as a spoiled American, until we learn all her “dark” story.  Also memorable is Brittany Deneen as the not-as-plus-sized-as-she-thinks Nana, the butt of Paulina’s most intense body-shaming insults (“Do you WANT to become a cow?”).  Destiny Freeman is Ama, who may be getting too close to an off-stage boyfriend, and Isake Akanke and Kristen Jeter are (perhaps too) interchangeable as Gifty and Mercy.


As the “adults in the room,” Charity Jordan plays the Headmistress with more affection for her charges then her semi-strict attitude demands, and Valeka J. Holt is an absolute delight as Eloise, the hyper-ambitious representative from the pageant, never letting an opportunity go by to remind everyone that she was “Miss Ghana of 1966.”  They are a potent reminder that the sort of attitudes and paradigms faced by the teens grows even more intense and insidious with adulthood.


On the technical side, Ming Chen’s beautiful set is airy, almost too large for the small(ish) cast, but beautifully reminiscent of colonial Ghana.  Lights by Bradley Bergeron successfully convey the heat and oppressiveness of the locale, and is nicely evocative in a faces-by-TV-light moment; however, his projections, though mostly attractive, have one moment that jars: a “time passing” sequence in which clouds reverse direction contrary to basic cloud physics.  It’s the only jarring moment that “feels wrong” in the entire production.  Ibi Owolabi is credited as dialect coach, and indeed, the Ghana dialects are convincing and rarely impenetrable.  Jarrod Barnes’ costumes are a delight to the eyes, and, school uniforms aside, are definitive of these characters.  Director Tinashe Kejesa-Bolden guides her team with invisible ease, manages a consistently lively pace, makes the stage picture memorable, keeping the production humming along with pageant-ready perfection,


I can’t say what the AJC writer found so slight about this play, other than its length and its humor.  His column seems reflective of someone who dismisses comedy, who dismisses teenage women, and who wants his plays “closed-ended,” all “questions answered.”  Not to be judgmental myself, but this sounds like someone whose standards of beauty are as skin-deep as a pageant judge’s.  


Apparently, we all have a little bit of “mean girl” caged up inside.


     -- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com    @bk_rudy     #TrueColorsTheatre  #SchoolGirls)  


*  With all the references to Bobby Brown, it is grimly ironic that the song choice for the “audition” is Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All.”


If you didn’t know, “Ghana” means “Warrior King” in the Soninke language.  Not that it matters …

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