By Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association
Not only is live theatre finally back in Chicago with the reopening of the venerable Goodman Theatre, but the first play there is pretty much a perfect one to remind us (if we needed a reminder) of what we’ve been missing: theatre’s unique ability to blend entertainment with societal commentary and filter both through a live audience. And Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play turns out to have only become more capable of doing that during the pandemic pause, as its laughs have never been more needed and its themes of colorism and prejudice have been writ large in the last year.
Originally slated to play in March 2020, School Girls was forced to shut down just before its opening night, but Goodman Artistic Director Robert Falls immediately knew it would be the first one back onstage when things were over…though of course, like all of us, he had no idea that it would take seventeen months for that to happen. Sharing a theatre with a very appreciative press night audience, though, I can say without hesitation that his faith in the play is entirely justified. Bioh’s take on the “mean girls” trope turns out to be just what we need as we slowly come out of this most unusual year.
Set in a girls’ private secondary school in Ghana (on an airy, open set designed by Yu Shibagaki), School Girls focuses on the school’s Regina George, Paulina Sarpong (Ciera Dawn, here displaying poignant introspection, smarmy faux friendship, and a sudden, overriding nastiness). Since she knows that being a good student isn’t enough to create a future, she places all her hopes on the annual Miss Ghana contest (which itself feeds into the fictional “Miss Global Universe” pageant). Knowing that a pageant recruiter is coming to the school—and that the minimum required sign-up is five—Paulina insists that her minions all join her in the audition. What she hasn’t counted on is the appearance of a new girl, Ericka Boafo, back from years in America just in time to (unintentionally) challenge Paulina’s supremacy.
Ericka is played disarmingly by Kyrie Courter, who goes out of her way to create a character who is genuinely happy and friendly despite a backstory that includes paternal rejection and the death of her mother. Ericka slides very comfortably into the friend group, bringing the kind of true camaraderie that the driven Paulina, herself hiding a painful backstory, is not capable of.
That friend group includes Paulina’s longtime BFF Ama, played with complex precision by Adhana Reid; she may love her friend, but she also knows who Paulina is at heart and wishes she would change. In addition, there are best buds Gifty and Mercy (Adia Ally and Tiffany Renee Johnson), who find that their joy, dance, and laughter easily rise to the surface when they are with Ericka instead of the demanding Paulina. Finally, there is Nana, a quiet girl who has become Paulina’s factotum, doing anything the queen bee tells her to—no matter how much it violates the rules—while silently and subserviently taking any detentions she might receive if she is caught. Played by Ashley Crowe, Nana’s shy personality is perfect for Paulina to exploit.
The two adults in the play are the headmistress, played by Tania Richard, a kind and caring soul who genuinely loves her school and her girls, and the aforementioned recruiter, Eloise Amponsah (Lanise Antione Shelley). Eloise has a huge chip on her shoulder from her own past involvement in the pageant, in which—she constantly reminds everyone—she was crowned Miss Ghana in her own youth. Getting that far proved to be the easy thing; she quickly discovered that only lighter-skinned contestants had any hope of Miss Global Universe glory. Meeting the half-white Ericka, she latches onto the girl as her ticket to a better job in the pageant hierarchy: if she can recruit a winner, they can no longer ignore her. The more we learn about her, though, the more we begin to understand that the angry Eloise may represent Paulina’s best future in this patriarchal society.
Bioh’s clever script, energized by Lili-Anne Brown’s direction, which knows when to be calm as well as when to break out the joyful dance moves, allows us to see all sides of these characters without, in the final analysis, judging them. There may be tropes at work here, but they are layered in clear attention to background and earned development. The social criticism is honest and never feels contrived. (If anything, it’s a bit understated even though it becomes the prime motivator for two characters.) It is also one of the issues of the current moment. Even Lin-Manuel Miranda took his lumps publically for what many perceived to be colorism in his otherwise excellent In the Heights. Here, it adds depth to what easily might have become just another Mean Girls clone. Instead, Bioh is using that stereotypical plot structure as a means of exploring the pain that such prejudice can cause. Yet, for all of that, School Girls will bring audiences to their feet, rejoicing in the laughter they have shared with these complicated, realistic characters.