Theater Review: “School Girls” — Teaching Lessons
By David Greenham
School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play is a serious comedy that takes aim at our provinciality and ignorance.
School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play by Jocelyn Bioh. Directed by Summer L. Williams. Staged by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA, through May 25.
In an interview in the SpeakEasy Stage Company program for the enticingly titled School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play, dramatist Jocelyn Bioh, who is also a successful actor and model, proposes her notion that “comedy is just a funny way of being serious.”
A first generation Ghanaian-American, Bioh has set her comic drama at one of the best schools in Ghana, the Aburi Girls’ Boarding School, which is located in the central mountains of the country. The school’s motto Bepow So Hann, Nyame Ne Hene translates in English to “Light on the Hill, God is King.” It is 1986 and the girls, Mercy (Tenneh Sillah), Nana (Shanelle Chloe Villegas), Gifty (Geraldine Bogard), and Ama (Sabrina Victor), are the reluctant minions of the unabashedly over-confident Paulina Sarpong (Ireon Roach). Paulina is certain that her future fame and fortune is inevitable — once she is crowned as Ghana’s representative to the Miss Global Universe Pageant.
The opening scene is filled with humor, marked by a distinctively American irony. Paulina declares, with unquestionable pride, that an American relative works at a high class restaurant in the United States — a White Castle. Underneath the social jabs and adolescent japes swarm the universal anxieties of teenage life: rampant insecurity, hyperbolic demands for loyalty, and fretting over body image.
The drama begins when Headmistress Francis (Crystin Gilmore) introduces the school’s newest student, Ericka Boafo (Victoria Byrd), who has just come back to Ghana after living in the United States. Her father is the owner of a local cocoa processing factory. Ericka is light skinned; the issue of colorism sits at the heart of this story. Playwright Bioh makes her concern with the issue clear in the SpeakEasy Stage program, “I always knew that I wanted to write about colorism; I just never knew how to write about it in a way that would feel like it would resonate with a universal audience.”
The inspiration for School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play is based on a true story. In 2011, pageant officials in Ghana for the Miss Universe Pageant recruited a bi-racial American-born woman to compete in the country-wide pageant. They felt that a lighter skinned woman would fare better in the world wide pageant. Their controversial choice beat out two well-known models from Ghana to reach the pageant — but she ended up being mostly overlooked on the world stage.
Bioh also adds a generational twist to the ‘mean girls’ concept and pageant world by bringing in Eloise Amponsah (Kris Sidberry) as a Ghana pageant recruiter. The glamorous and garrulous Eloise is a former Abrui school student; she was a classmate of Headmistress Francis. In addition, as Eloise repeatedly notes to anyone she meets, she was 1966’s Miss Ghana. Two decades may have passed, but it’s apparent that hard feelings from Eloise’s ‘mean girl’ stint in high school remain strong. The usually warm Headmistress is friendly but cold.
This is the kind of play that revolves around a strategic deal-with-the devil. In the end Paulina, Ericka, the Headmistress, and Eloise become complicit in a relationship to colorism that inevitably shape their hopes. Bioh wisely encourages the audience to question/confront its own biases, as well as its willingness to place nature above nurture.
Director Summer L. Williams delivers a tight, 75 minute production that moves evenly, without ever dragging. One of her most spirited touches — the use of simple transitions to create festive little dance parties that evoke the dynamic energy of the school girls.
Baron E. Pugh has come up with a classroom set of three tables and benches that double as an open cafeteria/meeting room. The muted colors are appropriate, given the institutional nature of the space. Also successful: Devorah Kengmana’s lighting and Allyssa Jones’s surprisingly fun sound design. Miranda Kau Giurleo’s costumes no doubt reflect the period, though I wished the girls’ school uniforms were a little more vibrant.
The ensemble cast is a unified force; when the performers work together the scenes sparkle. Sidberry’s Eliose depends on phony enthusiasm and a faux British accent to evoke her character’s desperate pride. Gilmore’s headmistress is at her best when the character is exercising her compassion. As the rival girls, Roach’s Paulina and Byrd’s Boafo make effective use of a common strength and vulnerability. The real pleasure of the production, however, is the vivacious team of supporting girls. Victor’s Ama displays a brimming confidence, Sillah’s Mercy and Bogard’s Gifty make for a perfect (and inseparable) tag team. (It would be fun to have these students in class.) Villegas’ Nana is the play’s most sympathetic character. Insecure and uncertain, she supplies nuanced glimpses of a strength and poise that will eventually come.
Most important is the fact that Bioh and SpeakEasy Stage are using theater to tell us that there’s a big world out there that isn’t filled with Americans. Populated by people for whom privilege and opportunity aren’t a given. Here, in the ‘homeland,’ far too many of us see the globe through American-colored classes. In its small way, School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play takes aim at this endemic provinciality and self-serving ignorance, showing us that the inhabitants of Ghana have many of the same concerns — and fall into the same self-destructive traps — as we do. It turns out that, like us, they also have many of the same dreams: specifically, to be seen, heard, and respected — rather than dismissed.
In the end, her plan worked. Bioh has succeeded in shedding light on some serious topics in a comedic way. Will we sit back and laugh and then walk away? Or will we do a better job of recognizing the humanity in those around us — especially those from other places and experiences? Here’s one more reminder that school never ends — for any of us.
David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.