Review by Kathleen Campion
The first thing to know about “School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play” is that it is a lot of fun—punctuated by moments of stunning cruelty and painful revelation.
As the title owns, Jocelyn Bioh’s debut play borrows from the established playbook of high-school–genre films—The Breakfast Club through The Heathers, Legally Blonde to the actual Mean Girls.
If you are a woman and you went to high school, there is much that rings painfully true in Bioh’s seventy-minute immersion in those estrogen-charged, initiation-to-adulthood dramas, rife with both tenderly shared secrets and blindsiding betrayals.
But there is something more here. These mean girls attend the Aburi Girls Boarding School in central Ghana in the mid 1980s. Layered onto the common strains of teen angst are the subtle preferences and resigned acceptance of colorism — the prejudice against darker-skinned people—usually within the same ethnic group.
Paulina (Maameyaa Boafo) is the ringleader of our clique. She has a sort of obsidian veneer of studied poise. She keeps her troops in line by dispensing fierce insults and slippery praise. Like gifted bullies everywhere, she has a nose for sniffing out their vulnerabilities—while working overtime to guard her own.
The girls are focused on the Miss Ghana pageant. A recruiter is expected at Aguri the next day, and it is obvious Paulina will be chosen to represent the school.
Enter Ericka (Nabiyah Be), just arrived from the U.S. to finish her schooling in Ghana. She is beautiful and friendly, and, most important, she is quite fair-skinned. She upstages Paulina in every category.
Bioh tells us many stories. Beyond the mean-girls circle, she weaves in the notion that not every father will pay for both school and shoes; that one mother gave her daughter skin-bleaching cream instead of food; that even a successful Ghanian woman, feeling invisible, will push “darkies out of my way!” Her storytelling is at its most powerful when she pushes the shoes and the cream and the “darkies” at us—and leaves us to extrapolate.
She writes with a wonderful economy, in that each woman is both a caricature (“the fat one,” “the passive one,” “the long-suffering headmistress”) and an actual person with her own demons.
Rebecca Taichman’s direction keeps the noisy congress of a girls school moving at a lively pace. She delivers a stage rhythm much like that of teen life—lots of peaks and valleys.
Bottom line? School Girls delivers enough punch to keep you engaged and entertained—even if the payoff punch is a tad short of a knockout.
School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play — By Jocelyn Bioh; directed by Rebecca Taichman.
WITH: Nabiyah Be (Ericka Boafo), Maameyaa Boafo (Maameyaa Boafo), Paige Gilbert (Gifty), Zainab Jah (Eloise Amponsah), Nike Kadri (Ama), Abena Mensah-Bonsu (Nana), Mirirai Sithole (Mercy), and Myra Lucretia Taylor (Headmistress Francis).
Designed by Arnulfo Maldonado; lighting by Jen Schriever; sound byPalmer Heffernan: costumes by Dede M. Ayite. Presented by MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher St., Manhattan, recently extended through December 23. Running time: 70 minutes with no intermission.