TheatreSquared’s production of the aptly titled “School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play” employs sharp humor and energetic acting to tell a classic tale of high school intrigue, while tackling heavy themes of racism, colorism and nativism.
“School Girls,” by Jocelyn Bioh, is set in an exclusive girls’ boarding school in central Ghana in 1986. The comedy follows the adventures and misadventures of quintessential queen bee Paulina (think: the Ghanaian Regina George), as she attempts to become Miss Ghana in hopes of making it to the Miss Global Universe pageant.
When Ericka, a beautiful, outgoing and — most significantly — light-skinned new student who has spent her childhood in America (a reverse Cady Heron, if you will) arrives at the school and curries favor with Paulina’s clique members/victims, chaos and hilarity ensues.
The brilliantly written play is full of witty humor and relatable teen tropes that are consistently entertaining, regardless of cultural context, because they are as ubiquitous off the stage as on. But “School Girls” goes beyond the standard mean-girl shenanigans and anti-bullying, “just be yourself” messaging of a John Hughes or Mark Waters coming-of-age flick.
In addition to illustrating that the high school experience might be far more universal than many realize, the play also confronts the very real, and — sadly — equally universal problems of racism, xenophobia and colorism (a form of bias defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.”)
Thankfully, this theatrical masterpiece does so very tactfully, without sacrificing either biting situational and performative humor or the seriousness that these issues, unfortunately as timely now as in the ‘80s, demand.
Ericka’s arrival in Ghana and interest in the pageant shakes up the social hierarchy at the Aburi Boarding school. But it also precipitates a bitter and heartbreaking conflict that forces the school girls and their headmistress to face the world’s, their country’s and their own internalized resentment of dark skin and idolization of anything adjacent to whiteness. Paulina’s rivalry with Ericka, who is later revealed to have a white mother, becomes emblematic of the deep-rooted inequities in the way different “types” of Africans are viewed both on and off the continent.
In TheatreSquared’s production, a stellar cast of talented actresses does this important story great justice with their spirited and moving performances. Makha Mthembu and Amira Danan are a dynamic duo as Paulina and Ericka, giving supercharged performances so convincing that they seem to come from a personal place.
Mthembu’s opening night showing was particularly impressive. The brilliant young actress perfectly captured both the hilarious absurdity of the character’s audacious popular-girl persona, and the tragic insecurities of a young girl who just wants to be recognized by the world as beautiful. A particular scene involving skin bleaching cream and a desperate entreaty by the school's headmistress, who is like a mother to Paulina, will bring a tear to the eye of even those viewers who just came for the comedy.
Danam’s performance as Ericka demonstrated a similar mastery of the challenging social and emotional dichotomy faced by a character who is much more complex than she first appears.
But the show is full of bright stars, with the supporting actresses shining just as brilliantly as the two leading ladies. Jasmine Rush was particularly noteworthy as Headmistress Francis, a woman whose love for her students — albeit, often tough love — is matched only by her deep sadness at the many silent struggles facing the girls in her care. Rush played excellently off of Shariba Rivers, who plays Eloise Amponsah. Amponsah, Francis's former classmate, is a former Miss Ghana, opportunistic pageant recruiter and perfect foil to the measured, compassionate leader of young women.
The production’s beautiful set design complements the show’s skillful performances and captivating subject matter. The single set — a cafeteria featuring glass-less open-air windows and long wooden benches —has just the right balance of recognizable and “exotic” elements to underscore the setting’s simultaneous novelty and familiarity.
My one issue with “School Girls,” and one which seems to have become an ongoing theme with TheatreSquared’s remote productions, is the sound quality. As with the last performance I viewed, November’s “The Half-Life of Marie Curie,” the recording of the show has volume and sound clarity levels that are very inconsistent from scene to scene and character to character.
There were times during my viewing that I could hardly hear the dialogue, and certain actresses almost sounded like they were not mic'd at all. Unfortunately, it was even more noticeable with “School Girls” than with “Half-Life,” because the cast was quadruple the size. It was disappointing to spend most of the performance frantically adjusting my TV between 20% and 90% volume so I could hear the actresses when they spoke at a normal volume, without waking up my neighbors’ children whenever the ensemble let out an excited scream.
That being said, “School Girls” is still a fun romp that will make you laugh out loud and think deeply about why racial prejudice is so ingrained in the global consciousness. With a plot formula that never goes out of style, heavy but necessary themes and a dazzling cast of talented actresses, this production is a must-see.
A pre-recorded performance of “School Girls” will be available for streaming through Feb. 14. Single-day streaming passes start at $20 and can be purchased on the TheatreSquared website.