In every school there’s a clique of five or so girls who pretty much run the place, or think they do. And in that every clique, there’s a queen bee at the center of the hive who rules her subjects with unquestioned authority (to her face, anyway). To keep control over the group, the human queen bee’s methods are remarkably similar worldwide. The queen will use gossip, intimidation, manipulation, boyfriend-flaunting, and more to hold onto her central space in dramas generally of her own creation.
In School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play by Jocelyn Bioh, directed by Summer L. Williams, and playing at the SpeakEasy Stage Company in Boston’s South End, Paulina maintains control by holding firm to a persona she tends as carefully as her hive of drones tiptoe around her. Think Tina Fey’s Mean Girls with a political edge to it, as Bioh shows us plainly how issues of race and class not only live on but are perpetuated by yet another generation.
Boarding school lessons
As far as the other students know at this West African boarding school, circa 1986, Paulina has a soccer player boyfriend (“Ooh, an athlete. Hold on to that one,” advises her adult queen-bee counterpart), speaks fluent American Popular Culture, and is on a trajectory to win the Miss Ghana pageant. “I am so jealous of your life, Paulina,” breathes Nana, the fat girl who idolizes Paulina only to be verbally and emotionally abused by her. Shanelle Chloe Villegas’ nervous, low self-esteem, scene-stealing Nana would — and does — do anything to hang onto her lowest-rung position. Still, Paulina informs her, “I’ve decided you can’t be part of our group anymore. You’re not really mixing with our aesthetic. Come check in with me when you’ve dropped about 15 to 20 pounds.” No, she did not just say that. Oh yes, she did.
There’s a lot of that in this knock-down, drag-out, catfight of a play, running through May 25. Baron E. Pugh’s set designs let us know right away that Paulina’s airs notwithstanding, this may not be the the most prestigious boarding school in Ghana. The tables are worn, the place could use a fresh coat of paint, and nobody except Gifty’s friends seem to notice that she can barely read. Even most audience members will have diagnosed her with dyslexia by the time Gifty, played by Geraldine Bogard with fun-loving, don’t-care bravado, finally makes her way through Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret. The play is full of such American cultural touchstones, filtered through the eyes of young girls a continent away.
Pretty is as pretty does
When a new student comes along, we see what just one disrupter can do. Ericka is confident, she’s got a rich daddy, and she wants to share all her cool cosmetics. Even more entrancing, she has long hair the other the other girls can’t keep their fingers out of, and skin so light they assume she’s benefiting from some miracle American lightening cream that doesn’t cause burns and blisters. “This is just my natural tone,” she says. Ericka, played with nuance by Victoria Byrd, has the cred to go full-blown mean girl and usurp the current queen, but doesn’t seem interested. Still, Paulina is now on high alert. Ireon Roach’s facial expressions show Paulina’s every emotion, and her exaggerated sashays across the stage let us know how uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.
When Erica signs up for the Miss Ghana pageant because “it looks like fun,” a collective breath is sucked in by the characters. If being torn to shreds by Paulina is fun, well then, sure. Now, it’s time for the secrets to spill out. Why does the daddy of one of the richest men in Africa yank his princess mid-year out of her United States high school and put her in a run-down boarding school a world away? Now it’s time for the rumors to swirl. Seems one girl’s very reputation and future are fair game. Now it’s time for the adults to rehash old arguments and teach the girls the lesson it seems they’re really at that school to learn: that the best chance for Ghana to win “on the world stage” is to put forth a girl who projects the white standard of beauty.
What it takes to be an “It” girl
Eloise the pageant recruiter (Kris Sidberry fills up the room with the former Miss Ghana 1966’s braggadocio and swagger) is there to find the “right” girl, one who falls “…at the other end of the African skin color spectrum.” In preparation, school headmistress Francis, by Crystin Gilmore with a headmistress’ seriousness of purpose, has been hard at work coaching Paulina for pageant success. The recruiter and the headmistress have a long history, hearkening back to their own boarding school days as, we are led to believe, queen bee and hive member, respectively. The pageant director makes no apologies for her demands and says, “If I have to push every darkie out of the way, so be it.” Oh no she did not just say that. Oh yes, she did. When the claws come out in this play, they come out filed to a lethal point. Eloise justifies her choices because of her experiences facing colorism. Her reflections have led this fighter not to try and remove the barriers that have kept her down, but to perpetuate them. Such is the legacy of colonialism.
In a particularly powerful fight scene with Headmistress Francis, Eloise slides from her carefully self-curated speech patterns straight back into the Ghanaian patois of her youth. For a moment, we see not a coiffed professional in a silk dress, but the street fighter of the old days. This is the kind of authenticity you get when there is a Ghanaian Culture Consultant, Evelyn Abayaah, as part of the production staff.
It’s pageant night, and the portable TV is wheeled out into the common room and plugged in. The girls are clustered together, a bowl of popcorn is passed around. Will their school-mate, Miss Ghana, make the jump to the world stage and compete in the Miss Universe pageant?
Keeping it up-tempo
The 1980s music choices keep the energy flowing in this energetic play. If you’ve never thought of Whitney Houston’s I Believe that Children Are Our Future as an ironic anthem, you may change your mind after this. Watching Villegas’ Nana mumble-sing bashfully that she’s found the greatest love of all inside of herself is an hysterical highlight of the scene.
There’s only one character in the play who we see has the brains of an academic and the soul of a poet. Sabrina Victor’s Ama is the one who comes closest to questioning the entire idea of pageants and they way they set up girls to compete against each other. And Tennah Sillah brings a Mercy played with a literalist’s inability to inhabit metaphor. In response to a practice pageant question, she asks incredulously, “Which would I rather be? Fire or water? But I’m not fire or water,” nor can she can’t comprehend why she should pretend to be. This is the girl who will grow up to be the, “Because I said so,” mom, and her kids will know that’s the end of the discussion.
The play keeps to a linear timeline and watches a lot like a 75-minute long, no intermission TV episode, which some theater goers might find off-putting. School Girls is geared toward adults, but looking at it from a family point of view, bring your kids from sixth, maybe even fifth grade on up. School Girls is a great way to expose them to meaningful theater with a show that will absolutely rivet them. Later, there will be plenty to discuss in a conversation that, thanks to the shared experience of live theater, will more easily come across as organic and not forced. That’s a sight better, and probably a whole lot more effective, than popping up one day with the idea that we all “talk about race.”
School Girls runs through May 25. Get tickets here.
School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play
With: Ireon Roach (Paulina Sarpong); Tenneh Sillah (Mercy); Shanelle Chloe Villegas (Nana); Geraldine Bogard (Gifty); Sabrina Victor (Ama); Crystin Gilmore* (Headmistress Francis); Victoria Byrd* (Ericka Boafo); Kris Sidberry* (Eloise Amponsah)
Scenic Design, Baron E. Pugh; Costume Design, Miranda Kau Giurleo**; Lighting Design, Deborah Kengmana; Sound Design, Allyssa Jones; Production Stage Manager, L. Arkansas Light*; Assistant Stage Manager, Audrey Seraphin
* Member of Actors’ Equity Association
** Member of United Scenic Artists, Local USA 829