Stage Corner: School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play

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Lightly inspired by the cult classic Mean Girls, but with much more depth, School Girls elucidates the tribulations five Ghanian school girls.  Set in an exclusive Ghanian boarding school in 1986, School Girls opens with its characters sauntering on stage runway style to obnoxious pop music.  Quickly enough, it is established that Paulina is Queen Bee, ruling the school and her friends with a toxic mixture of cruelty and camaraderie.  Everyone expects Paulina to be chosen as that year’s Miss Ghana – that is, until new student Ericka arrives.  American-born, biracial, and light-skinned, the spotlight immediately swivels off Paulina and onto her.

There are five school girls. Nabiyah Be portrays Ericka with a charm that quickly turns to barely-concealed fury at the play’s climax, a performance that seemed a little too big for the play but held the audience in absolute rapture with its utter intensity.  Mirirai Sithole and Paige Gilbert as Mercy and Gifty, witty and affable, bring an innocent light-heartedness. Abena Mensah-Bonsu plays Nana, an overweight girl, with a quiet strength and determination.  Nike Kadri plays intelligent Ama with a natural ease.  Last but certainly not least, Maame Yaa Baofo’s performance as Paulina brings forth depth and complexity to what might have otherwise been an irredeemable character.  While Paulina often seems to cross the line into utter, cartoonish villainy, Baofo lends her a simmering self-loathing that makes it difficult not to sympathize with her.  Not to be forgotten are Zainab Jah and Myra Lucretia Taylor as Eloise and Headmistress Francis, both of whom bring their own mean girl days into the fray.  In other words: a stellar cast.

Written by Jocelyn Bioh (an actress herself), School Girls is inspired by a real-life Miss Ghana: Erica Nego, an American-Ghanian biracial woman who embodies the “universal and commercial” look (read: light-skinned and vaguely European looking) that the Miss Universe pageant inevitably succumbs to.  It is with this context in mind that the play interrogates the toxicity of colorism.

Colorism, as defined by Alice Walker, is “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color.”  Rooted in anti-blackness, colorism is deeply entrenched in almost all communities of color.  In Egypt, where colorism, anti-blackness, and internalized racism run rampant, bleaching creams like Fair & Lovely littered the shelves of pharmacies and grocery stores. My darker-skinned cousins used it all the time, and even I, already pale-skinned for an Egyptian woman, was encouraged to stay out of the sun and use the bleaching cream whenever I developed a tan.

Fair & Lovely seems mild and innocent, however, compared to the more powerful bleaching creams used in School Girls, which have landed dark-skinned Paulina in the hospital multiple times, for burnt and bloodied skin.  Though the incidents are not directly discussed in the play, their obvious insidiousness nevertheless drew gasps from the audience.  The yearning for whiteness is clearly established in a scene where the girls cluster around Ericka and marvel at her light skin, asking her what bleaching cream she uses, and are stunned when she reveals that is her natural skin tone.  Ericka’s ethnically ambiguous looks attract Eloise, Miss Ghana 1966 and current pageant recruiter, and she sets her sights on Ericka as someone who would appeal to the Miss Universe judges more than Paulina, whose features embody West Africa.  Eloise, very dark-skinned herself, has nevertheless learned to play the game of white supremacy to her advantage.

School Girls treads a thin line between humor and horror, with laughs quickly turning to gasps and stunned silence.  Emotional beats are passionate and hard-hitting, while humorous moments are quick and sharp-witted and occasionally bombastic in fantastic way.  In one powerhouse scene, the five girls perform a rendition of Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” while auditioning for Eloise.  Without giving anything away, I will say that the scene is big and loud and staged in such a way that sets up a fantastic payoff that had the audience applauding wildly.

School Girls packs a big punch in a short 75 minutes that goes by in what feels like minutes.  With humor and heart, it tackles poignant issues of class, colorism, and intracommunity privileges under the cover of pink lights and mean girl nonsense.  School Girls is a breath of fresh air and an absolute delight.

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