Live, in-person theater has returned to Goodman Theatre. And it could also be said that school’s back in session. After nearly 17 months, Jocelyn Bioh’s SCHOOL GIRLS; OR, THE AFRICAN MEAN GIRLS PLAY has finally opened. The production radiates Black girl joy. After such a long wait, it’s particularly magical to see this uproariously funny but also tender play that puts young Black women right at its center.
SCHOOL GIRLS takes place in 1986 at the Aburi Girls’ Secondary School in Ghana as we are introduced to the school’s reigning clique. Director Lili-Anne Brown diretcts a top-notch ensemble that includes the biting Paulina Sarpong (Ciera Dawn) as the Queen Bee. Paulina is flanked by the whip-smart Ama (Adhana Reid), who tries to call her out, Gifty (Adia Alli), Mercy (Tiffany Renee Johnson), and the shy Nana (Ashley Crowe), who is known to hide contraband snacks in her school uniform. In the play’s early scenes, Bioh follows the structure of iconic teen girl films like MEAN GIRLS and HEATHERS (though SCHOOL GIRLS has a gentler touch, especially compared to the latter). We see Sarpong’s Paulina tear down her friends viciously, only to have them all comfort one another in secret when she walks away.
Paulina also has her eye on the prize: She desperately wants to be crowned Miss Ghana 1986 and have the chance to compete in the Miss Global Universe pageant. Paulina is sure she will impress the pageant recruiter Eloise Amponsah (Lanise Antoine Shelley, with a perennial pageant walk that is pure gold) enough to take the title. That is, until light-skinned American newcomer Ericka Buofo (Kyrie Courter) arrives at Aburi. With her confident knowledge of American life and a backpack full of makeup and designer clothes from the likes of Calvin Klein, Erica seems poised to upset the delicate social balance Paulina has established.
Bioh’s dialogue beautifully captures the quick-witted, fast-talking rapport of high school women. The Aburi girls flit from topic to topic with ease, and the ensemble of actors clearly have a deep connection with one another. Although Sarpong delivers Paulina’s most biting lines in a way that cuts deep, Bioh maintains a light-hearted, humorous tone even when the bullying really hits a nerve. The dominant note in SCHOOL GIRLS is one of joy. As Ama, Reid’s quick and clever responses to many of Paulina’s cruelest insults offers an antidote to the bites. Alli has perfect timing for Gifty’s offhand remarks and commentary. Johnson conveys Mercy’s shyness and hesitancy about the upcoming pageant with vulnerability and also lands the laughs (just watch her trying to answer a potential pageant question in a rehearsal scene). While Nana may be the shyest of the group, Crowe’s comedic timing ensures her keen words land right every time. Courter gives Ericka a brash, confident exterior, but she also lets us see the uncertainty underneath.
And that’s where SCHOOL GIRLS powerfully deviates from the teen girl films that influence its dialogue and structure. Queen Bee’s like MEAN GIRLS’ Regina George can rely on their blonde-hair, blue-eyed good looks and family money to get ahead. But as a young Ghanian woman, Paulina simply does not have the same tools at her disposal. As with most bullies, Bioh shows us that Paulina’s bite is deeply rooted in her own insecurities. While the script does not allow Paulina’s vulnerabilities to excuse her bullying, it does provide insight into her character and understand how that cruel facade developed. Sarpong’s portrayal also plays into the dualities of Paulina’s character: She delivers Paulina’s insults head-on, but she also makes us believe in the more vulnerable moments.
Certainly, it doesn’t help for Paulina that Eloise indicates that Ericka may have the more “universal, commercial” look that would grant her success in the pageant. Headmistress Francis (Tania Richard, balancing kindness and sternness) may challenge Eloise on that, but she understands the point. In the dynamic between Eloise, who clings to her pageant days as Miss Ghana 1966, and Headmistress Francis, who is no-nonsense, we also see how the tensions between women can last throughout life — and how that contrast mirrors what we see with Paulina and Erica.
SCHOOL GIRLS is a triumphant return to live theater at the Goodman. It’s full of genuine laughs and heart.
SCHOOL GIRLS; OR, THE AFRICAN MEAN GIRLS PLAY runs through August 29 at Goodman Theatre. Tickets start at $15. Visit GoodmanTheatre.org/SchoolGirls.
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com
Photo by Flint Chaney