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School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play

Theatre Review by David Hurst - November 16, 2017

Nabiyah Be and MaameYaa Boafo
Photo by Joan Marcus

In a recent profile in The New York Times, actress and playwright Jocelyn Bioh said it was her mission "to tell stories about African and African-American characters that buck expectation and defy stereotype." After seeing School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play, Bioh's debut play at the Lucille Lortel produced by MCC Theater, audiences will be leaping to their feet shouting, "mission accomplished!" They certainly were at the preview performance I saw this week when the cast's curtain call was met with a thunderous standing ovation complete with whoops of joy and shouts of praise. It felt like a genuine, spontaneous ovation, not like the kind so common on Broadway these days where audiences rise to their feet in a dutiful narcoleptic haze like lemmings going over a cliff. Indeed, School Girls is that rare piece of theatre that feels authentic from beginning to end—a perfect amalgam of prescient writing, superb acting, spot-on design and savvy direction.

Set in a girl's boarding school in Ghana in 1986, on the surface School Girls is a simple story of two girls wrestling for control within a small group of friends, as well as vying for the chance to represent Ghana in an upcoming international beauty pageant. Paulina Sarpong (a deliciously fearsome MaameYaa Boafo) is the resident queen bee at the Aburi Girls Boarding School, where she rules her small circle of friends with caustic criticism and emotional blackmail. She doles out tough love with a smile but the girls resent her cruelty and chafe at her controlling manner. Paulina thinks she's got a slot in the upcoming Miss Ghana pageant all sewn up, but a beautiful, new girl, Ericka Boafo (a luminous Nabiyah Be) arrives two weeks late into the term and, without knowing it, immediately threatens Paulina's position in the school's social hierarchy. Their struggle to dominate and survive over 75 intermission-less minutes ultimately becomes a test of their character's ability to overcome familial dysfunction and emotional insecurities which are woven into the fabric of their day-to-day existence.

Under the surface of School Girls, Bioh has written a taut exploration of racism, colorism and classism that upends notions of self-loathing and challenges the world's definition of beauty. Cleverly showing us the timelessness of these issues, Bioh subtly includes a subplot wherein the school's Headmistress Francis (a superb Myra Lucretia Taylor) is forced to tangle with her old nemesis at the school from twenty years earlier, Eloise Amponsah (the wonderfully under-stated Zainab Jah). Eloise appears at the school as the representative from the Ghana pageant, she herself having won the Miss Ghana title in 1966. But the lure of a promotion and salary increase if her candidate wins color Eloise's moral compass. It's clear from the Headmistress's seething she was a victim of Eloise's bullying twenty years ago, proving that nothing changes where school girl's abilities to inflect emotional distress is concerned.

On a spare, utilitarian set by Arnulfo Maldonado and wearing spot-on costumes by Dede M. Ayite as well as wigs designed by Cookie Jordan, the excellent supporting cast includes: Paige Gilbert as Gifty and Mirirai Sithole as Mercy, cousins who keep each other out of trouble; Nike Kadri as Ama, a bookworm with an actual boyfriend; and Abena Mensah-Bonsu as Nana, a generous hearted girl with a warm smile who battles an addiction to food. They are the beating heart of School Girls and as they're jostled back and forth between Paulina and Ericka, you'll feel the heartache and unfairness of a callous world amidst the laughter and gaiety playwright Bioh so accurately captures.

School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play
Through December 10
MCC Theater at The Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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