Paulina is the most popular, the most ambitious and by far the meanest girl in the Aburi Girls Boarding School at the outset of Jocelyn Bioh’s often unsubtle but ultimately stimulating new play. Paulina is confident that she will be crowned Miss Ghana of 1986, until Ericka enrolls in the school. Ericka effortlessly wins over the beauty pageant recruiter because of an advantage with which Paulina can never compete – lighter skin.
“School Girls, or The African Mean Girls Play,” whose title is almost longer than its running time, was inspired by a true story. Pageant officials in Ghana maneuvered for an American-born Ghanian beauty queen of mixed race to represent the West African country in the Miss Universe pageant of 2011, reasoning that her lighter complexion would give her a better chance in the contest. Bioh, a New York actress and playwright who is a first generation Ghanian-American, grafted onto that story the experiences of her mother at Aburi, an elite boarding in Ghana where (as Bioh tells us in a note in the script), her mother was “a (proud) mean girl.”
Initially, however, the playwright exhibits no apparent sympathy for Paulina (Maameyaa Boafo), who is not only unremittingly mean-spirited – bullying and belittling her supposed friends; instantly hostile to newcomer Ericka (Nabiyah Be) – but she is also lavishly self-centered and transparently a phony. She boasts of her “Auntie” in America working at a “high class restaurant” — White Castle. At such moments, the play itself seems as obvious and mean-spirited as Paulina.
But, then, about 45 minutes into the 70-minute play, it takes a turn. The pageant recruiter Eloise (Zainab Jah), who was Miss Ghana of 1966, holds auditions, and each of the six girls takes a turn singing verses from one of Whitney Houston’s signature songs, “Greatest Love of All.”
Paulina easily bests her classmates singing:
I believe the children are our future…Show them all the beauty they possess inside
But then Ericka channels Whitney, belting out:
If I fail,
If I succeed
at least I’ll live as I believe. No matter what they take from me. They can’t take away my dignity.
Shortly afterward, the situation explodes — Paulina attacks, Ericka counter-attacks, the headmistress scolds, the recruiter retreats, chaos reigns, somebody bleeds, truths out, ironies emerge, the two luckiest girls in the school turn out not to be so lucky. And what becomes clear is how deliberate Bioh’s crafting of her play and how intriguing her insights. Whitney notwithstanding, the culture is not interested in showing children the beauty they possess inside; the push to conform to outward standards of beauty can easily take away a young woman’s dignity. And, the world standard of beauty happens to be, to put it bluntly (as Bioh does), white. I don’t think it’s a complete stretch to see the title, which at first seemed off-putting, as reinforcing the (excuse the phrase) hegemony of Western white culture.
The playwright also deftly draws character dynamics. The relationship between Paulina and her supposed best friend Ama (Nike Kadri), for example – each both resenting and envying one another — mirrors that between the headmistress (Myra Lucretia Taylor) and the recruiter; they were themselves classmates at Aburi.
Director Rebecca Taichman exhibits none of the ingenuity in stagecraft that won her the Tony for “Indecent,” nor, at the Lucille Lortel Off-Broadway, is there room (in space and surely in the budget) for the sort of flourishes in design in her follow-up Broadway production, “Time and the Conways.” What the production has going for it above all is its eight-member cast — all wonderful, all women, an ensemble whose girlish enthusiasm feels so real that we revel in it. Born in Pakistan, Brazil, Zimbabwe, London, Texas, Detroit, New Jersey and Fort Motte, South Carolina, they are all persuasively residents of the cloistered boarding school in the Aburi Mountains of Central Ghana – or, in the case of Eloise, ex-residents. It’s worth noting that Zainab Jah, who made an impressive Broadway debut as a sex slave turned soldier in Eclipsed, then portrayed an exploited 19th century African woman in Venus, is in “School Girls,” the embodiment of Miss Ghana 1966, all grace and worldly sophistication – until Eloise opens her mouth. Then the racist self-hatred bubbles up, albeit elegantly, in euphemism. The pageant, she explains to the headmistress, is looking for contestants with “a more universal and commercial look.” When the headmistress doesn’t understand, Eloise spells it out more bluntly: “We are just looking for girls that fall on the other end of the African skin spectrum.”
School Girls Or The African Mean Girls Play
MCC at Lucille Lortel
Written by Jocelyn Bioh
Directed by Rebecca Taichman
Scnic design by Arnulfo Maldonado, costume design by Dede M. Ayite, lighting design by Jen Schriever, sound design by Palmer Hefferan, dialect coach Deobrah Hect
Cast: Nabiyah Be as Ericka Boafo, Maameyaa Boafo as Paulina Sarpong, Paige Gilbert as Gifty, Zainab Jah as Eloise Amponsah, Abena Mensah-Bonsu as Nana, Mirirai Sithole as Mercy, Myra Lucretia Taylor as Headmistress Francis
Running time: 70 minutes
Tickets: $49 to $99
“School Girls or The African Mean Girls Play” is on stage at Lucille Lortel Theatre through December 23, 2017