In 2015, when comedian Steve Harvey announced the wrong name at the Miss Universe pageant, people around the world were outraged. For citizens in developing countries, a pageant win brings cultural validation and can bring much needed resources to communities. In the fictional world of School Girls; or the African Mean Girls Play, (onstage through March 8 in a regional premiere from True Colors Theatre Company), it means a new building at the all-girls Aburi Boarding School in Ghana, plus college scholarships and a chance to meet R&B singer Bobby Brown.
With so much at stake, competition is fierce among a mean-girls clique led by Paulina Sarpong (Ellen Ifeoluwa George), who’ll stop at nothing — including skin bleaching — to have a shot at the crown. Her pack includes best friend Ama (Destiny Freeman), loyal spy Nana (Brittany Deneen), and the Frick-and-Frack duo Mercy (Kristen Jeter) and Gifty (Isake Akanke). Their plans are thwarted when a biracial girl named Ericka (Lauren Richards) becomes the apple of everyone’s eye, including the headmistress (Charity Jordan). With a pageant recruiter visiting the school soon, the girls must decide how much the title is worth to them.
Tinashe Kajese-Bolden directs this quick and witty comedy by Jocelyn Bioh, which premiered in 2017 in New York. The show became an off-Broadway hit and opened up conversations about beauty standards, body image and colorism. The plot was inspired by real instances of African countries sending light-skinned and white contestants to represent them in order to have a better chance at a win against the backdrop of colonization.
Bioh’s girls talk about dieting to maintain a certain dress size, wanting to be chosen by men in a world that doesn’t consider them desirable and using skin-lightening creams. The latter is especially dangerous because it can cause permanent scarring and deformity. The World Health Organization studied skin lightening in 2011 and found that women in China, India and Nigeria were among the biggest users.
Bolden keeps the tension and high jinks high with performances from a strong ensemble. George’s Paulina has a strong physicality, with a stiffened spine yet the ability to move like a snake, especially in a cringe-worthy confrontation with Nana over a cafeteria dinner roll. Deneen plays Nana as a nervous Nellie who must fight to find her voice and self-worth regardless of her weight. Mercy and Gifty provide much-needed comic relief trying to move as one person. They finish each other’s sentences, have secret handshakes and throw shade at everyone.
If this staging has any flaws, it’s that the comic moments need more punch. The opening scene is really strong, but once Ericka enters, the show grows more serious than it needs to be. Kajese-Bolden typically acts in and directs dramas; perhaps that’s why some of the lighter moments inch toward gravitas. An otherwise strong show runs out of steam a bit at the end.
Ming Chen (set) and Bradley Bergeron (projections) work well together to establish a sense of place. Costume designer Jarrod Barnes goes to a wonderfully tacky place with his 1980s pageant gowns — the big sleeves, bright colors and shimmering sequins.
School Girls, inspired in part by the 2004 feature film Mean Girls, unfolds amid the dizzying globalization of the 1980s, where its purposeful comedy prompts important conversations. Perhaps its best message is found in lyrics the girls sing from one of Whitney Houston’s hits: “I found the greatest love of all inside of me.”