Theatre Review – Obsidian Theatre & Nightwood Theatre/School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play by Jocelyn Bioh

School Girls1– photo by Cesar Ghisilieri

Photo by Cesar Ghisilieri

Among the many refreshing elements of Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play, is that it features schoolgirls who happen to be black. With a little customization, these girls could be Jewish, Italian, Chinese or whatever. In other words, this play allows us to see black girls in their own specific context, but one that has universal resonance.

Bioh is a Ghanaian-American playwright based in New York, and she has given us a delicious look at teenagers in Ghana. Yes, there is a predictability about the plot – the downfall of a bully – but Bioh has thrown in enough issues, complications, conflicts and shifting group dynamics to certainly hold interest. Humour also abounds which gives the play its vivacity. School Girls may seem simplistic at times, but there is a lot of substance here. Bioh’s veiled parody of Hollywood teengirlflicks is a bonus.

The setting is an all-girl’s residential school in the mountains. Paulina (Natasha Mumba) is the leader of the clique with an obvious tendency toward cruelty. Gifty (Emerjade Simms), and her cousin Mercy (Bria McLaughlin), are her yes-women who practically speak as one. Ama (Rachel Mutombo) has her doubts about Paulina’s veracity, and is distancing herself away from the group, while Nana (Tatyana Mitchell) is the overweight misfit whom Paulina has included out of so-called kindness. Into this mix comes new girl Ericka – a pale skin, mixed-race beauty who has just arrived from the States. She turns out to be the unwitting fox in the hen house. At first, the girls seem to fall into predictable stereotypes, but as they reveal more fully their unique personal histories, their characters take on layers of depth. It is a testament to Bioh’s writing that these girls have distinct personalities that we come to know well.

Yes there are adults in the play. The hard-pressed and harried Headmistress Francis (Akosua Amo-Adem) appears to favour Paulina, which adds an element of mystery. Does she not see Paulina for the bully she is? And then there is the recruiter Eloise Amponsah (Allison Edwards-Crewe), Miss Ghana of 1966. Bioh has set her play in 1986, and in those more innocent times, the girls are fixated on being chosen from their school to take part in the Miss Ghana competition. Winning that, means going on to the Miss Global Universe contest. The very sophisticated Eloise, who happens to be an old girl with a history with Francis, has her own agenda about whom she will choose as the school’s representative.

Bioh’s inclusion of the beauty contest is insidious because of the dreams and hopes it instils in the girls, particularly the poorer ones like Paulina. We also learn that in the Ghanaian culture, lighter skin is much desired, and these teenagers use skin bleach as routine despite its negative side effects, a shocking colonial holdover/western influence.

_School Girls2 - photo by Cesar Ghisilieri

Photo by Cesar Ghisilieri

Rachel Forbes’ set is a realistic school cafeteria, while Joanna Yu’s period costumes are inspired, from her school uniforms, to the formal frocks. The contest dream sequence is a fabulous surprise. Reza Jacobs’ sound and Michelle Ramsay’s lighting are both lean but effective.

Nina Lee Aquino keeps growing as a director, and she shines here, particularly in revealing character, determining pacing, and drumming out energy. The movement of the schoolgirls through the cafeteria tables and benches is absolutely natural and in character, but Aquino is also able to crank out surprises when it comes to the beauty contest. The production is cleverly conceived.

Admittedly, I did have trouble with the African accents, which the actors pulled off like to the manner born, but it didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the play, although I would have loved to have heard every word. Nonetheless, the acting overall is excellent, and there is not a weak link in the cast. As the main protagonists, Mumba’s Paulina and Landgon’s Ericka provide a perfect contrast, the former a tightly coiled spring of turmoil, the latter, the perennial nice girl.

Niche companies like Obsidian (black) and Nightwood (feminist) always win when they choose plays anchored in their mandate, but that speak to the general. School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play is compelling theatre. It proves that teenage girls are the same everywhere, which, when you think about it, is a terrifying thought.

Obsidian Theatre & Nightwood Theatre/School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play by Jocelyn Bioh, directed by Nina Lee Aquino, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Mar. 5 to 24, 2019.

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