“More than Skin Deep”
Most of the actresses in Jocelyn Bioh’s comedy School Girls: The African Mean Girls Play, about Ghanaian school girls and a beauty pageant, are not what you’d call conventionally beautiful but each finds the beauty in her character, helping make this MCC Theater offering one of the season’s most warmly endearing.
|Nike Kadri, Nabiyah Be, Paige Gilbert, Mirirai Sithole. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Bioh’s plot, set in 1986, is inspired both by her mother’s girlhood at this school and Ghana’s attempt to become the first West African country to have a contestant win the 2011 Miss Universe Pageant; the young woman in question, who didn’t place, was American-born, biracial, and of disputed Ghanaian heritage. The issue of “colorism” in African society, as Bioh calls it, was one of her main concerns in writing the play.
Four of the girls are in thrall to Paulina (Maameyaa Boafo, sensational), leader of the pack and meanest of the mean: there’s the Tweedledee-Tweedledum pair of Gifty (Paige Gilbert) and Mercy (Mirirai Sithole); Ama (Nike Kadri), tall, bespectacled, and nobody’s fool; and Nana (Abena Mensah-Bonsu), overweight and so desperate to be part of the group she lets Paulina use and abuse her.
The seventh girl is Ericka (Nabiya Be, fabulous), a lovely, biracial, light-skinned girl raised in America; her father owns a local cocoa factory and family circumstances require her to finish school in Ghana. Immediately, the pack begins gravitating to the friendly, intriguingly appealing, won’t-take-guff stranger, and the domineering Paulina sees her position threatened.
The stakes keep getting higher as the girls compete to be selected in a school pageant for the Miss Ghana competition, a prelude to what the play calls the Miss Global Universe Pageant. The judge is glamorous, dark-skinned, visiting alumna Eloise Amponsah (Zainab Jah, striking and true), Miss Ghana of 1966, onetime friend of the stern but motherly Headmistress Francis (Myra Lucretia Taylor, convincingly authoritative).
The growing enmity between the dark-skinned Paulina—whom everyone, especially Paulina herself, thinks has the title in the bag—and the light-skinned Ericka, whose potential Eloise immediately spots, leads to a strikingly dramatic confrontation during which the girls reveal far more about their personal circumstances than we might otherwise have realized. It’s one of the most gutsily acted scenes on any local stage.
Much of the play’s charm comes from the high-spirited girls’ naïveté about the world outside their mountain village, a world where New York’s Chinatown is considered a retail paradise and Wal-Mart and Conway are trendy boutiques. Worldly ignorance aside, these kids are no different from those you might see chattering away like chipmunks almost anywhere teenage girls of any color congregate.
With the action set entirely in the school’s cafeteria, realistically created in institutional green and beige by Arnulfo Maldonado and expertly lit by Jen Schriever to suggest the African heat, we’d expect other girls to be present, too. This isn’t a movie, though, so we just have to accept that everyone else is in class or outside playing while the action transpires.
Dede M. Ayite’s costumes make a potent contribution, ranging from the girls’ dullish green uniforms to Eloise’s eye-ensembles to the girls’ clumsily hopeful pageant gowns.
My super-progressive plus-one loved the play because he insisted it was intended as an indictment of capitalism, which, I suppose, could be read into it. Others will lean toward Bioh’s stated theme regarding preoccupations with skin color—even to the point of using dangerous bleaching cream—an issue significant beyond this West African setting. And others will ponder its concerns with female worries about body image, while the issue of physical beauty as the key to international success and wealth for poor young women will resonate as well.
It matters little that the situations are obviously old-hat, contrived, and manipulative; the African setting gives it a delightful twist, it’s written with much wit, and it’s so well-played by a first-rate cast, that you find yourself absorbed from its first words to its last. A huge hand must go to Tony Award-winning director Rebecca Taichman for making this play so theatrically spirited.
School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls play has some moments of bitterly divisive meanness but, with its plentiful laughs and tears, it’s also uplifting, unifying, and funny. I wouldn’t be surprised if some Hollywood producer weren’t already eyeing it for the screen.
School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher St., NYC
Through December 31