School Girls Will be Mean Girls
By Patrick Hurley
Borrowing tropes and devices from teen clique films such as Mean Girls and Heathers, School Girls or, The African Mean Girls Play, playing now at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, is a story of assimilation as much as it is a comedy about the universal struggle of fitting in.
Playwright Jocelyn Bioh takes a formulaic concept, and has some fun flipping it on its head by presenting a world that has never really been closely examined by American audiences.
Set in the high stakes world of high school, as is customary for a contemporary bildungsroman, the pressures of conformity are especially heightened in this world. Set in a girls boarding school in Ghana in 1986, and follows a group of friends led by “Queen Bee” Paulina (Maameyaa Boafo) as a recruiter for the Miss Ghana beauty pageant shows up looking for local beauties. In an already hyper focused environment, the significance of looks becomes the driving force of most of the action for all of the girls. And it’s pretty assumed that Paulina will be selected for the pageant. A pageant that comes with a promise of a glamorous life to follow, including a date with singer Bobby Brown. But the stasis of her world is thrown out of whack with the arrival of newcomer Ericka (Joanna A. Jones) the beautiful and light skinned daughter of a local Cocoa tycoon.
What ensues is a battle between these two girls that exposes the harsher realities of internalized racism and colonialism’s powerful affects of assimilation wrapped in the insecurities of high school aged girls. All of this is most clearly manifest when the recruiter goes straight after the lighter skinned Ericka, claiming she has a much more “universal” look. She implies that the judges will give her more consideration than Paulina because of this. Headmistress Francis (Myra Lucretia Taylor) disagrees with her, and the two adults become the foils of the younger characters demonstrating the identity politics of a time and place unfamiliar to most modern audiences.
The play, for all of its humor and brevity (it clocks in at a brisk 75 minutes) doesn’t crack open the world quite enough. It plays upon familiar notions and goes for big laughs, but could have benefitted from a little more development. Director Rebecca Taichman stylizes with a capable hand, and there are enough guffaw-worthy moments that she plays to the hilt. And the entire cast jumps in and plays along with precision and deft timing. However, in the end, this is a minor work with a big message. But well worth the trip, if for nothing more than watching this overly familiar story told in an entirely new setting with a group of women whose voices have historically never been heard.
School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play Opens Saturday, September 8 at 8 p.m. (Previews September 2 through 7) Through September 30, 2018
Intermission: “School Girls” runs 75 minutes without an intermission.
Ticket Prices: $25 – $72 (Ticket prices are subject to change.)
Tickets are available: Online at http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre
9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232