Earlier this year, I had a conversation with an artist of color who was fed up with being compared, even in the most complimentary fashion, to white artists that seemed to fill a similar niche. I’m paraphrasing here, but her point was: Stop using language that implies that a white person was “there first.” Make it possible for artists of color to be their own trailblazers, not an exotic version of someone else. Basically, don’t be Dick from High Fidelity when he describes Lisa Bonet’s character Marie De Salle as “Sheryl Crow–ish crossed with a post–Partridge Family, pre–L.A. Law Susan Dey kind of thing, but um … you know … black.”
Jocelyn Bioh is smartly tackling this pervasive kind of thinking right now at MCC in her funny and fast-paced School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play — starting with the show’s very title. There’s a wry wink in there, as if to say, Yeah, I know the comparisons to Regina George & Co. are coming. If I get them out of the way for you, can we get back to business? It’s a canny move, especially because the business of School Girls revolves around the agonies of comparison. It’s about teenage girls, after all.
These teenage girls are students at the Aburi Girls Boarding School, a prestigious secondary institution in the mountains of central Ghana that Bioh’s mother attended as a young woman. Their undisputed Queen Bee is Paulina Sarpong (the tart, tightly coiled Maameyaa Boafo): pretty, popular, pitiless, and the clear choice for the school’s nomination for the Miss Ghana Pageant. When we first meet Paulina and her pack, the pageant is all they can talk about. A recruiter is coming tomorrow, and if one of them is chosen, that girl might become Miss Ghana 1986, which means a chance at becoming (insert gasps and sighs here) Miss Universe.
In writing School Girls, Bioh was inspired by the true story of Yayra Erica Nego, a Minneapolis-born biracial woman of Ghanaian heritage who was named Miss Ghana in 2011. The pageant officials, thinking they had a winner on their hands, brazenly shuffled aside the competition’s rule that contestants must be born in the countries they represent. Why did Erica Nego get fast-tracked? Why did she beat two famous Ghanaian models for the Miss Ghana crown? If we take our answer from School Girls, then it’s a sour and sadly unsurprising one: Even in West Africa, whiteness, or at least lightness, is next to godliness. As the pageant recruiter Eloise Amponsah — herself a former Miss Ghana and, before that, a reigning Aburi mean girl —puts it crisply, “It has become clear that the judges are fond of girls who have a more … universal and commercial look … Girls that fall on the other end of the African skin spectrum.”
As Eloise, Zainab Jah gives a restrained, disquieting performance. Next to the high school girls — still whirlwinds of ferocious desire and ricocheting energy — she’s all cool, arch condescension. She remembers what it was like to be Aburi’s Queen Bee — indeed, she can’t help reverting to her snide, popular-girl habits with her former classmate-turned-headmistress, Francis (Myra Lucretia Taylor as the play’s long-suffering voice of reason). But life after high school hasn’t been all photo shoots and fashion shows. Eloise’s thwarted ambition has hardened into something cruel and self-loathing: she’s the bitter embodiment of the old adage, If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Now, working for the Miss Ghana pageant, she’s helping to perpetuate a world that equates beauty with whiteness, playing on the insecurities of young black women and even driving some to self-harm (the girls don’t talk about it, but we discover that Paulina has been hospitalized more than once, her face blistered and burnt from skin-bleaching cream).
So when a new student — School Girls’ very own Erica Nego — walks into the cafeteria just before selections are made for the pageant, well, shit’s about to go down. The new girl, Ericka Boafo (Nabiyah Be in a bright, affable performance with a hidden edge) is everything Eloise is looking for: tall, fair (biracial, actually), long-haired, American-raised but with a wealthy Ghanaian father — you know, “universally” appealing. She’s also everything Paulina’s friends are fascinated by. She’s just moved to Ghana from Ohio and she’s got an American accent, American makeup, American hair products, American dresses! Especially the clique’s youngest, flightiest duo, Mercy and Gifty — played with excellent comic chemistry by Mirirai Sithole and Paige Gilbert — are immediately starstruck by the glamorous transfer student. After all, unlike Paulina, she can teach them the correct pronunciation of “Calvin Klein” (not “Calvin Clean”), disabuse them of the notion that White Castle represents the classiest of American dining, and host “MAKEOVER PARTIIIIIEEEEEEES!!!”
Under director Rebecca Taichman’s confident hand, School Girls rolls swiftly through its 75 minutes. The setup is brisk and clear, and it doesn’t take long for the pins to start falling. For the most part, we know how they’ll fall, but that’s okay. School Girls is formulaic without being unsatisfying. Familiar structures, especially when full of fresh faces and sharp humor, can be deeply enjoyable. Netflix is making millions off this principle, and School Girls would be right at home there: The play often feels like the whole first season of a TV show, collapsed into a pilot episode. Which means that its emotional and narrative leaps are fast, even a little too fast — especially the lightning speed with which the girls abandon Team Paulina for Team Ericka. Yes, they’ve all suffered under Paulina’s rule, but still, in high school even toxic loyalties die hard. Several times I found myself longing for the whole binge-watchable run of School Girls: more time to meet each girl, a subplot or two, a longer build to the inevitable finale involving the pageant. Not to mention the other students … Besides Paulina’s five-girl clique — rounded out by two more lovely performances by Níkẹ Kadri as the sensible one, Ama, and Abena Mensah-Bonsu as the shy, manipulable one, Nana — does anyone else go to this school?
Bioh, who’s also an actor (she recently gave a wonderful performance in Signature’s revival of In the Blood), knows how to craft bouncy, juicy dialogue that performers can have fun with. She also knows that there’s a sting inside all this fun. After all, Bioh has set her play in 1986, whereas it was only six years ago that Yayra Erica Nego, so carefully chosen to appeal to Western standards of beauty, was ultimately passed over entirely at the Miss Universe Pageant. So, when Headmistress Francis turns to her girls in a moment of disappointment and encourages them, “Who knows, maybe next year, things will be different” — the consolation feels hollow. It’s been more than 30 years, and still we live in a world bedeviled by constant, odious comparisons.
School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play is at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.