×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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

More Legit

  • The Jungle review

    Off Broadway Review: 'The Jungle'

    With the rumbling of semis careening by and the sound of Middle Eastern music in the distance, “The Jungle” aims to vividly immerse audiences into the world of the real-life migrant and refugee camp of the same name. By telling the story of the Jungle’s creation in Calais, France, in 2015, and its eventual destruction [...]

  • Hillary Clinton'Network' play opening night, New

    Hillary Clinton Attends Opening of Broadway's 'Network'

    A 1976 film might not be expected to translate seamlessly to Broadway in 2018, but for the cast and creative team behind “Network,” which premiered Thursday night with Hillary Clinton in the audience, the story still feels uncomfortably close to home. “It was a satire then, and now it’s documentary realism,” said Lee Hall, who [...]

  • 'Network' Review: Bryan Cranston Stars on

    Broadway Review: 'Network' With Bryan Cranston

    The 1976 film “Network” won four Academy Awards, including best original screenplay for writer Paddy Chayefsky, for its blistering portrayal of an American society fueled by greed and bloated on corruption. A haggard Peter Finch took the best actor trophy for his harrowing performance as Howard Beale, a TV newsman who is so disgusted by [...]

  • Faye DunawayVanity Fair Oscar Party, Arrivals,

    Faye Dunaway to Play Katharine Hepburn on Broadway

    Faye Dunaway will return to Broadway to play another acting diva. The Oscar-winner is set to portray Katharine Hepburn in “Tea at Five,” a one-woman play that charts the movie legend’s career over the course of a winding monologue. Dunaway last appeared on Broadway in 1982’s “The Curse of the Aching Heart.” In the 1990s, [...]

  • Philip Bosco'The Savages' film after party,

    Tony Award Winner Philip Bosco Dies at 88

    Veteran character actor Philip Bosco, who won a Tony Award in 1989 for “Lend Me a Tenor” as an opera impresario and was nominated five other times, died Monday, according to his grandson, Luke Bosco. He was 88. Bosco received his first Tony nomination for “Rape of the Belt” in 1960. His other nominations were [...]

  • Hugh Jackman

    Hugh Jackman Says 'Greatest Showman' Success Made Him Revive Stage Show

    Hugh Jackman could have spent his hiatus between movies soaking up rays in Saint-Tropez. Instead of lounging poolside, the movie star will return to the stage for a grueling series of arena performances that will take him across Europe, Australia, and the U.S. The upcoming musical extravaganza, “The Man. The Music. The Show.,” kicks off [...]

  • Bob Mackie, Costume Designer and Cher'The

    Watch Cher's Surprise Performance at the Opening of Broadway's 'Cher' Musical

    Kanye West may have caused some unwanted drama at the opening of Broadway’s “The Cher Show” on Monday in New York, but thankfully his alleged bad behavior didn’t come close to spoiling the evening. Cher herself caused fantastic frenzy as she glided down the aisle of the jam-packed Neil Simon Theatre toward her seat. All [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content