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A CurtainUp Review
School Girls, OR the African Mean Girls Play
By Jacob Horn
Jocelyn Bioh's School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play takes this moment and passes it through a transatlantic prism, morphing the setting into the elite Ghanaian boarding school Aburi Girls. In Cady's stead, we meet Ericka Boafo (Nabiyah Be), who has just transferred in from a school in the suburbs of Ohio. And when her peers hear she's moved from the United States, Gifty (Paige Gilbert) asks a similar question: "So are you a white?"
The answer, put simply, is no, but in Bioh's sharp, highly compelling high school comedy, color is hardly a simple topic. The nuances of skin tone are ever-present, especially in the runup to a visit from a recruiter for the Miss Ghana pageant (Zainab Jah). The expected shoe-in is reigning queen bee Paulina Sarpong (Maameyaa Boafo). But Ericka's arrival upends the social hierarchy, with ramifications for Paulina that run deeper than where she'll sit at lunch.
School Girls is, in a sense, a conventional story about teen drama, just like its namesake movie. But the narrative draws on history, as well: Bioh was also inspired by a controversy over an American-born, bi-racial woman who won the 2011 Miss Ghana pageant before going on to Miss Universe, where she did not place.
As a result, in the process of transposing a familiar story, Bioh makes it more complex. Her exploration of the global privileges, and privileging, of light skin casts a troubling light on the mystique of Mean Girls's Cady as a white girl from Africa.
The dominance of western ideals of beauty is more than an abstract idea here. In this play, colorism has real implications that we see brought to bear to stinging effect. At many points, we are reminded that for these Ghanaian girls, the Miss Universe pageant has historically reinforced a message that the "most beautiful women in the world" tend not to look like them.
This idea is explored in nuanced moments that are not only embedded in the script but are also to the credit of director Rebecca Taichman and the skillful cast (which also includes Níkẹ Kadri, Abena Mensah-Bonsu, and Mirirai Sithole as the other students and Myra Lucretia Taylor as the headmistress). The lighting design by Jen Schriever further contributes in its use of color and white light, evoking bright fantasies and harsh realities.
In addition to offering an incisive look at how skin color affects the girls' senses of self, School Girls is also very funny. Bioh crafts her characters with a loving sensitivity while also poking fun at their flaws and missteps. This mentality continues on in the performers themselves, whose group chemistry is consistently enjoyable. Even though the characters are rooted in archetypes—the cool one, the quiet one, the brainy one, etc.—they rarely seem one-dimensional.
Sometimes, the play's brisk 75-minute pacing does lead to moments that feel simplified. The swift deterioration of relations between Paulina and Ericka requires the characters to exist along a sinner/saint binary. When we're offered new information to complicate our views of these characters, it's a challenge to see past Paulina's monstrosity or Ericka's victimhood.
But it's a compliment to School Girls to say that there could fruitfully be more of it. Bioh has crafted a fresh, keen interpretation of a frequently used trope, while Taichman and her cast have created a lively and satisfying production.
Meanwhile, it's encouraging to see this work staged at MCC, which has tended to lag behind its peers in showcasing diverse narratives and talent. A 2016 report by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition on the 2014/15 season found that MCC had the least diverse casting of off-broadway companies. On the Theater’s website, a banner rotates through past production photos. By a very rough count, less than 10% of the performers featured in these images are black (less than 5% if you double-count any actors who appear in more than one photo).
It's easy to draw a parallel to the Miss Universe pageant in Bioh's play, imagining the Aburi Girls students signing on and seeing actor after actor who does not look like them. School Girls not only offers a refreshing take on the high school comedy, it challenges us to see how representation is rarely accidental, and to think carefully about what its consequences might be.
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School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play by Jocelyn Bioh
Directed by Rebecca Taichman
with Nabiyah Be (Ericka Boafo), Maameyaa Boafo (Paulina Sarpong), Paige Gilbert (Gifty), Zainab Jah (Eloise Amponsah), Níkẹ Kadri (Ama), Abena Mensah-Bonsu (Nana), Mirirai Sithole (Mercy), and Myra Lucretia Taylor (Headmistress Francis)
Scenic Design: Arnulfo Maldonado
Costume Design: Dede M. Ayite
Lighting Design: Jen Schriever
Sound Design: Palmer Hefferan
Hair and Wig Design: Cookie Jordan
Dialect Coach: Deborah Hecht
Production Manager: Steve Rosenberg
Production Stage Manager: Laura Wilson
Running Time: 1 hour and 15 minutes with no intermission
Presented by MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street
Tickets: $49-$99; (212) 352-3101 or (866) 811-4111, www.mcctheater.org, or in person at the theater
From 11/1/2017; opened 11/16/2017; closing 12/31/2017
Performance times: Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 pm; Thursdays–Fridays at 8 pm; Saturdays at 2 pm and 8 pm; and Sundays at 3 pm. Monday performances on November 20 and December 18 at 8 pm. No performances on November 23 and 24.
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 11/17/2017 performance
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