“School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play” – ★ ★ ★
An almost perfect play.
That’s how director Lili-Anne Brown described “School Girls; Or The African Mean Girls Play,” whose 2020 Chicago-area premiere at Goodman Theatre was cut short during previews by the COVID-19 pandemic. Goodman’s production opened officially on Monday before a masked, socially distanced crowd.
Brown, who deftly balances the play’s humor and its considerable emotion, sets a brisk pace for Jocelyn Bioh’s concise, familiar tale (it runs about 85 minutes and echoes 2004’s “Mean Girls”) about queen bees and the cliques they control. Set in 1986 at a girls boarding school in Ghana, Bioh’s dramedy is about a newcomer to the hive whose presence upsets the order established by the queen.
Pairing comedy with pathos (a most satisfying combination when done well), Bioh examines colorism, beauty standards, bullying and the lingering effects of colonialism. Her observations pack a wallop and elevate “School Girls” beyond a clichéd teen drama.
The strength of the play rests with its multifaceted characters. Vulnerable but with a stamina born of struggle, they possess the kind of joie de vivre (beautifully conveyed by an effervescent young cast) that too often fades with age. They are also quite funny, as evidenced by the girls channeling their inner Whitney Houston during a performance of “The Greatest Love of All,” a song whose meaning seems to have escaped them.
by signing up you agree to our terms of service
Attractive, popular Paulina Sarpong (Ciera Dawn in a performance as regal as it is ruthless) reigns over her fellow students at central Ghana’s Aburi Girls Boarding School with offhand cruelty. Delivering sugarcoated insults under the guise of friendly advice, she intimidates her minions. Among them is sweet, self-effacing Nana (Ashley Crowe), a frequent target; cousins Gifty (the very funny Adia Alli) and Mercy (Tiffany Renee Johnson); and the subtly mutinous Ama (Adhana Reid), the only girl to challenge the queen. Of course, it’s not affection that draws these girls to Paulina. It’s fear — fear of being ostracized, fear of being humiliated, fear of being alone.
Enter Ericka Boafo (Kyrie Courter), a likable, pop culture-savvy newcomer from the United States. The light-skinned daughter of a wealthy Ghanaian cocoa factory owner and a Caucasian woman, the unwitting Ericka quickly emerges as Paulina’s rival not only for their classmates’ affection, but for the title of Miss Ghana, the country’s representative to the upcoming Miss Global Universe Pageant.
Pageant representative and former Aburi student Eloise Amponsah (Lanise Antoine Shelley, in a sharply drawn and wrenching performance) arrives at the school in search of a winning contestant. Former classmate Headmistress Francis (Tania Richard) — whose admonition that “education is the only gift no one can take away” barely registers with the pageant-obsessed schoolgirls — suggests Paulina. Eloise, herself Miss Ghana 1966, favors light-skinned Ericka as the country’s representative, claiming the pageant committee’s preference for “girls that fall on the other end of the African skin spectrum” and have a better chance of winning an international contest. The result, says Eloise, would be opportunities for the young woman, a sizable donation to the school and a bonus for herself.
Therein lies the dilemma. Do you perpetuate stereotypical beauty standards that divide your community? Do you support institutions that value beauty above everything else? What if the opportunities those institutions offer are among the few opportunities available to young women?
The questions persist, as surely as mean girls endure.