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Off Broadway Review: ‘School Girls, or the African Mean Girls Play’

With:
Creative: Directed by Rebecca Taichman. Set, Arnulfo Maldonado; costumes, Dede M. Ayite; lighting, Jen Schriever; sound, Palmer Hefferan; hair & wigs, Cookie Jordan; dialect coach, Deborah Hecht; production stage manager, Laura Wilson. Cast:  Nabiyah Be, Maame Yaa Boafo, Paige Gilbert, Zainab Jah, Nike Kadri, Abena Mensah-Bonsu, Mirirai Sithole, Myra Lucretia Taylor

1 hour, 10 minutes

Teenaged girls in Ghana prove they can be just as nasty– and as needy – as their international sisters everywhere.

Delightful ensemble work from a cast of girlish thesps performing in “School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play,” captures both the humor and the pathos of a senior class of schoolgirls competing for the crown of Miss Ghana of 1986. Written by Jocelyn Bioh and under the firm direction of Tony-winning helmer Rebecca Taichman (“Indecent”), the play is full of light and laughter, even as it reveals the pathetically limited life choices for those smart girls who graduate each year from the Aburi Girls Boarding School in central Ghana.

There’s a certain loose-limbed grace in the awkward efforts of six senior girls to present themselves as viable candidates for the title of Miss Ghana 1986. The eyeballs trained on them are those of the shrewd adjudicator Eloise Amponsah (the ever-so-poised Zainab Jah), Miss Ghana 1966, she keeps reminding us, who has come to their private school to size them up. It goes without saying that the girls with the best prospects are those with the palest skin and Westernized features.

On those limited qualifications, none of the girls actually stands a chance. Nana (Abena Mensah-Bonsu) is sweet-natured, but much too heavy. Mercy (Mirirai Sithole) and her bestest, Gifty (Paige Gilbert), are smart and witty, but no beauties. And Ama (Nike Kadri) is both smart and sensible, but not interested.

Their chosen leader and top candidate is Paulina Sarpong (Maameyaa Boafo, not much sugar, but lots of spice), a bona fide Popular Girl who knows her place (on top!) in this little universe and treats her fawning acolytes like slaves. “No one ever stands a chance when it comes to Paulina,” one girl says, without rancor. At one point, costumer Dede M. Ayite puts Paulina in a flouncy magenta cocktail dress that sums her up perfectly. Unspoken, but in the air, is the fact that pretty Paulina is dark-skinned.

That unspoken fact becomes dramatically obvious when a new student – the shy but magnetic Ericka Boafo (Nabiyah Be, effortlessly charming), a girl of mixed race who clearly favors her fairer parent – enters the class. When the girls compliment Ericka on the quality of her skin-lightening products she shocks them by revealing that her skin color is natural. (“Wow! You really are blessed,” one of them gushes.) Seeing her Miss Ghana 1986 chances slipping away, Paulina is beside herself with anger and envy and deep-down self-loathing.

The scribe is insistent that we laugh at her youthful characters, who have so much to learn. Indeed, it’s impossible not to laugh at their clever, but cruel schoolgirl humor. At the same time, it’s impossible not to brood over the importance they place on skin tone. Color being such a touchy subject, it takes some head-clearing to accept the openness with which the subject is discussed in Ghana – at least, in the privacy of this class of girls.

The school’s dedicated, but exhausted headmistress Frances (Myra Lucretia Taylor, who has a deep understanding of this maternal role) tries to instill higher values in her students. “Education is the only gift that no one can take away,” she begs them to remember. But being realistic about teenaged girls, she also encourages the entire class to audition for the honor that Paulina seemed certain to win — until Ericka showed up.

In fact, Miss Ghana 1966 takes one look at Ericka’s pale skin and delicate European features and sings Hallelujah. No fool she, Eloise may preach African pride, but there’s serious money to go around to the school and sponsors of the winning contestant. And she knows what the judges like to see — “Girls who have a more universal and commercial look,” she says, using a popular euphemism for “light-skinned” that fools no one.

One thing you cannot call this play is subtle. There is something endearing about these innocent girls and their dreams. But Bioh goes too far with the character of Paulina, who is an insufferably over-the-top narcissist and far too polished a villain. (“Headmistress likes to make everyone feel like they have a fair chance,” she taunts the others, “but we all know I’m the best.”) Worse, she’s downright cruel to her classmates, exposing their weaknesses, revealing their secrets, and blackmailing them to do her dirty work.

Hero worship makes the world go ‘round in private all-girls schools. But even the most besotted followers will turn on an idol who betrays them as Paulina does. If this were a Greek tragedy about rampant pride, the Furies would rip her to pieces.

Off Broadway Review: 'School Girls, or the African Mean Girls Play'

Lucille Lortel Theater; 198 seats; $99 top

Production: An MCC production, by special arrangement with the Lucille Lortel Foundation of a play in one act by Jocelyn Bioh, originally developed as part of the New Black Fest at the Lark. Opened Nov. 16, 2017.

Cast: Creative: Directed by Rebecca Taichman. Set, Arnulfo Maldonado; costumes, Dede M. Ayite; lighting, Jen Schriever; sound, Palmer Hefferan; hair & wigs, Cookie Jordan; dialect coach, Deborah Hecht; production stage manager, Laura Wilson. Cast:  Nabiyah Be, Maame Yaa Boafo, Paige Gilbert, Zainab Jah, Nike Kadri, Abena Mensah-Bonsu, Mirirai Sithole, Myra Lucretia Taylor

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