The actress Jocelyn Bioh was a total delight in such shows as An Octoroon, Men on Boats and Everybody, bringing an extra zip to every line she spoke. So I figured a play Bioh wrote might be equally delightful. And I was right. School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play, whose run has just been extended to the end of the year at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, is a total pleasure that tickles the funny bone, warms the heart and gives you something substantial to think about on the way home.
Inspired by both the Tina Fey film (itself soon to be a Broadway musical) and her mother's experience as a student at a boarding school in Ghana (click here to read an interview with the playwright) Bioh's play centers on a group of girls at an exclusive school in 1986 who are vying to be contestants in a national beauty pageant that offers a chance—albeit slim—at the even bigger prize of becoming Miss Universe.
It seems a foregone conclusion that Paulina, a haughty beauty and the school's bullying queen bee, will be the winner until a newcomer named Ericka comes onto the scene. The daughter of a wealthy local industrialist, Ericka arrives with the cachet of having grown up with a white American mother in the U.S., the kind of singing voice that will triumph in the talent portion of the competition and, most importantly, the light skin, long wavy hair and other physical features that fit the more western standards of beauty that the contest organizers seem to be seeking.
Paulina's refusal to go down without a fight provides both the show's humor and its heartbreak. It's a fresh spin on the high school comedy trope. And it's also refreshing to have a show set in Africa that doesn't focus solely on war, famine or other adversities that have plagued the continent.
Bioh's play joins a growing number of works by artists such as the novelists Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Ayobami Adebayo and the playwrights Danai Gurira (In the Continuum, Familiar) and Mfoniso Udofia (Sojourners, Her Portmanteau) who are telling new stories about contemporary African lives, both in their ancestral homelands and here in the U.S.
That doesn't mean pretending the continent's problems don't exist. The school in School Girls has barely enough money to keep running. And the girls tangle head-on with the sexism and colorism that have made skin bleaching such big business throughout Africa. The debate over how to define African beauty echoes the controversy over the choice of a biracial Miss Ghana in 2011 (click here to read about that).
Still, Bioh is at heart an optimist and her play pulsates with good humor, much of it delivered in sharp one liners. Some of the jokes might seem mean-spirited or even politically incorrect in some other hands. But Bioh's love—and respect—for her characters is palpable. Plus she knows that the best humor often masks deep pain.
She shares the success of this MCC Theater production of her play with a pitch-perfect cast, lead by a fierce Maameyaa Boafo as Paulina and Nabiyah Be as a not-so-gentle-as-she-seems Ericka. Meanwhile, stage vets Myra Lucretia Taylor and Zainab Jah are equally effective as the school's headmistress and the pageant's recruiter.
But under the sure-handed direction of Rebecca Taichman, last season's Tony winner for staging Indecent, everybody shines. People at the performance I attended got a particular kick out of Paige Gilbert and Mirirai Sithole as the Timon-and-Pumba-like sidekicks who manage to be both mousy and mouthy.
In fact, School Girl's pervasive good-heartedness was so infectious that the audience roared with laughter throughout much of its brief 75-minute running time and cheered even more at the end. You'll probably do the same.
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