Stage Door Review 2019

School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play

Mar 16, 2019

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by Jocelyn Bioh, directed by Nina Lee Aquino

Obsidian Theatre with Nightwood Theatre, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto

March 8-24, 2019

Ericka to Paulina: “You don’t even like yourself”

School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play by Jocelyn Bioh, an American playwright of Ghanian descent, takes the tired scenario of the power struggles in all-girl cliques in high school from a movie like Mean Girls of 2004 and makes it all her own. 

The action is set entirely in Rachel Forbes’s recreation of a school cafeteria that is so large it almost counts as an environmental design. The audience is placed on either side of the acting space. This cafeteria is the prime meeting place at a private girls school in the Aburi mountains of Ghana. Here Paulina (Natasha Mumba), the self-appointed leader of the chicest clique at the school holds court. She dispenses health and beauty tips with herself as the principal example of their effect and accepts the adulation she encourages in her five followers. 

When Paulina leaves them briefly, we find that her followers are not all that enamoured of her. Mercy (Bria McLaughlin) and Gifty (Emerjade Simms), the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of the group find she is in a bad mood. Ama (Rachel Mutombo), who clearly thinks for herself, sees through all of Paulina’s bullying and seems to put up with her just so Paulina won’t cross the line in berating the more vulnerable girls, like the overweight Nana (Tatyana Mitchel), who this day is Paulina’s main object of derision and advice.

While all agree that Paulina is on edge because of problems with her possibly non-existent boyfriend who is supposed to be a famous soccer player, the real reason is that a recruiter will be coming to the school to choose a contestant for Miss Ghana 1986. Paulina is determined to be chosen and to win.

Paulina’s plans hit a major set-back when Headmistress Francis (Akosuo Amo-Adem) introduces a girl who has just joined the school although the term has already started. This is Ericka Boafo (Melissa Eve Langdon), who has grown up in the United States and whose father owns the largest cocoa plantation in Ghana. Paulina has swayed her group with her deep knowledge of the US that she has gained from her many cousins there. She tells them that White Castle is a fine dining establishment and that Walmart is a high-end fashion boutique. Now that the girls have a source of accurate information from the idealized country, they discover Paulina doesn’t know a thing. Faced with Paulina’s anger and threats and Ericka’s kindness and generosity, most of Paulina’s group abandon her to follow Ericka causing Paulina to grow even more furious.

Worse than all this, Ericka is light-skinned and Paulina is not. In a continent where skin-whitening lotions are a big business, lighter skin has is considered more attractive than darker skin. This is certainly the opinion of the recruiter Eloise Amponsah (Allison Edwards-Crewe), Miss Ghana of 1966 as she never fails to remind people, who has made Ericka her choice before she has even met her. Eloise knows that if her candidate wins the crown she, the candidate and the school will benefit. She also knows that a lighter-skinned candidate will have the best chance of winning and going on to the Miss Global Universe contest. This sets up a physical struggle between Ericka and Paulina that could jeopardize both their chances.

Bioh has thus used the “mean girls” structure not merely to put an African spin on it as the subtitle might suggest but to approach head-on a topic of shadeism seldom discussed in African American literature. When Black American author Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) made it a central topic in her great novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), she was roundly criticized by Black critics for allegedly showing that Black people were not unified in their oppression but engaged in a secondary form of prejudice against each other based on skin colour.

Bioh exposes shadeism in the girls school as a form of internalized self-hatred derived from colonialism. Ghana had ceased politically to be a colony of Great Britain in 1957, but Bioh shows that by 1986 Ghana had become culturally a colony of the United States. In shifting from the one sort of colony to the other, the standard of beauty has remained Caucasian. Shadeism had existed in numerous countries like India, China and Japan centuries before they had any contact with White people. There the prejudice was based on class – the wealthy who did not have to work outdoors were naturally lighter-skinned than those who did. Yet, it is safe to say that European colonialism and later American hegemony in the production of popular culture reinforced native biases against dark skin and led to the present $19.8 billion dollar industry in skin lightening creams booming in Africa, India, and the Middle and Far East. 

The schoolgirls in Bioh’s play lament that there has been no Black winner of the Miss Global Universe contest – an obvious blending of the Miss World and Miss Universe beauty pageants. In fact, the first Black Miss World, Jennifer Hosten from Grenada was crowned in 1970 and the first Black Miss Universe, Janelle Commissiong from Trinidad and Tobago, was crowned in 1977. But what the girls are specifically criticizing is true. The first Miss Universe from Africa, Margaret Gardiner from South Africa in 1978, was White.

Thus Bioh shows that her schoolgirls are contending not just with peer pressure and the wish to be popular but with the normal teen obsession with appearance worsened by the frustration of meeting an impossible and alien standard of beauty. This affects all the girls, including Ericka as Paulina, who in their one moment of serious conversation with each other confess their equal difficulties with skin colour. Paulina is the darkest-skinned of her mother’s eight children and was treated worst. Ericka, growing up half-Black, half-White, in he US was thought too White to have any Black friends and too Black to have and White friends. 

The cast is universally strong. Natasha Mumba, in particular, gives us such a complex portrait of Paulina that it is difficult to dislike the character outright since we understand the desperate need to be liked that lies beneath her bullying. On the one hand, Mumba’s assertions as Paulina that reveal a total ignorance of the US, about which Paulina claims to be an expert, make her a comic figure. Yet, without saying a word, Mumba shows the profound shock Paulina suffers in watching her carefully constructed world fall apart as soon as she sees the light-skinned Ericka. As the action progresses, Mumba shows how Paulina’s inner anguish becomes almost uncontrollable.

Melissa Eve Langdon also presents Ericka as a complex character but in quite a different way. She shows that Ericka finds the Ghanaian girls’ fawning over an American embarrassing and yet sees that using this may be an easy way to make friends in a place where she is an outsider. As Ericka gradually realizes the depth to which Paulina hates her, Langdon adopts an increasingly colder tone when addressing her until Ericka’s natural politeness becomes too difficult to maintain.

As Ama, Rachel Mutombo plays a key role in demonstrating that even before Ericka’s arrival some of Paulina’s followers clearly see through her. The wonderfully cutting irony of tone Mutombo gives Ama’s lines contrasts well with the humorously sycophantic babblings of Emerjade Simms as Gifty and Bria McLaughlin as Mercy. Tatyana Mitchell at first portrays Nana as a sluggishly willing punching bag for Paulina’s aggression. But as the action develops, so does Nana and Mitchell demonstrates how in realizing Paulina’s negative affect on her, Nana grows in inner strength in ways she, and we, did not expect.

While Akosua Amo-Adem may be too young to play the Headmistress, she uses her voice to lend the character the necessary authority. The high point of her performance comes when she fully conveys the inner anger in the Headmistress when she is faced with a moral dilemma over which girl to choose as a contestant. Allison Edwards-Crewe’s performance as the egotistical Eloise, still revelling in her fleeting fame of having been Miss Ghana 20 years earlier, is a bit over the top yet somehow suitable for a character who has spent so much time acting the part of a beauty queen that she can’t seem to stop. Edwards-Crewe’s best moments are when Eloise reveals her mercenary goals in choosing a contestant and in revealing how unglamorous being Miss Ghana in the the 1960s really was.

School Girls is a play that provides closely-observed comedy as well as glimpse for most of the audience into a world and its attendant concerns few will have experienced. The play may be set in Ghana but its subject matter will resonate with anyone who has considered the notion of beauty contests as both sexist and divisive in pitting woman against woman. Bioh’s critique of shadeism is important in two ways. One is that the physical and psychological damage of using skin whiteners is something that can only stop once people acknowledge that shadeism exists. Two is that while the US tends to view diversity in popular entrainment and commercials as a question that affects only the US, the reality is that attitudes reflected in American popular culture and advertising have a massive effect beyond its borders. 

As an American writer, Bioh critiques American cultural colonialism for not taking responsibility for encouraging models of beauty that cause actual harm in the rest or the world. Her ability to combine comedy with political and social comment so deftly makes Bioh a young playwright whose works one would like to follow. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Emerjade Simms, Bria McLaughlin, Rachel Mutombo, Melissa Eve Langdon and Natasha Mumba; Tatyana Mitchell; Rachel Mutombo, Emerjade Simms, Tatyana Mitchell, Natasha Mumba, Melissa Langdon and Bria McLaughlin. © 2019 Cesar Ghisilieri.

For tickets, visit buddiesinbadtimes.com.