Jocelyn Bioh’s “School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play” is onstage at the newly renovated Round House Theatre and its exploration of the corrosive effects of colorism will have audience members discussing the topic long after they leave this excellent play.
Colorism, discrimination based on skin color — usually directed at those with darker skin — has gone hand-in-hand with the global rise of Western beauty standards, dramaturg Gabrielle Hoyt writes in the program notes. Yet, Bioh also brilliantly intertwines that social issue with the social dynamics of typical teenage girls: the desire to improve their social standing; their preoccupation with celebrities and fashion; and their insecurities, self-worth and fears.
The Ghanaian-American playwright writes from a place of strength about six girls growing up in a boarding school in 1986 in Ghana, having herself grown up in a boarding school in New York City for economically disadvantaged students.
In the play, Paulina (a dynamic Kashayna Johnson) is one of six, tight-knit girls and considers herself the queen bee amongst the group. She decides who will be in the clique; what they should eat; what they should wear; and even how much they should weigh.
She is over-the-top egotistical, although we will learn later that is all bravado. Pretty and petite, she dreams of becoming the next Miss Ghana and assumes that she is a shoo-in for the competition. She has not bet, however, on a rival showing up just before the trials are held. That rival, a fair-skinned Ghanaian-American teen from the U.S, named Ericka (a terrific Claire Saunders), is self-assured, assertive and not afraid of Paulina’s controlling, and often cruel, behavior.
Other members of the talented cast include Nana (Jade Jones), who is overweight but looking for acceptance; Gifty (Moriamo Temidayo Akibu), who is a slow reader; Mercy (Debora Crabbe), Gifty’s cousin; and Ama (Awa Sal Secka), supposedly Paulina’s best friend.
The tension in the play heats up when the girls are drawn to Ericka’s sweetness and her insistence that they should make their own decisions. When they become excited over attending Ericka’s makeover party to improve their look for possible selection for the trials, Paulina sees it as a sign of disloyalty and turns into a despicable, conniving mean girl. She will steamroll over anyone she sees as an obstacle to her queen bee position and being selected as Miss Ghana.
Tension rises more when a pageant recruiter, Miss Ghana 1966, Eloise Amponsah (Shirine Babb), shows up to scout a girl for the competition, and it is clear that the lighter-skinned Ericka is her obvious choice. For the darker-skinned Paulina, this is the last straw. She decides that she must get some dirt on Ericka and bullies Nana into stealing Ericka’s personal school file, calling Nana an “overweight cow” and other cruelties.
Bioh keeps the audience on edge as we learn more about both Paulina’s and Ericka’s past as secrets they have kept reveal why there is room for compassion for both. Paulina is the product of a home where her mother had eight children by different men, and she is the darkest of the children. Ericka fares better than the others, but she is the product of a mixed relationship. Her wealthy Ghanaian father has enrolled her in a boarding school in Ghana because her white mother has died. There is no place for her with his family.
These influences outside their control drive the decisions they make, including their aspirations and dreams. Deeper themes, like the topic of using bleach to lighten one’s skin, surround all aspects of the play. Discussions about the sometimes deadly results of these themes also appear during a revealing moment during the performance.
The moral compass in the play is the school’s headmistress, Francis, (Theresa Cunningham) who insists that education, above anything else, is what the girls should focus on. She is appalled that Eloise, who she attended the same boarding school with, is so focused on selecting a fair-skinned girl that Eloise coldly announces in front of the girls that a “darky” won’t put Ghana on the map.
There is also greed involved. If one of the girls that she picks wins as Miss Ghana, Eloise also will get a big promotion and raise.
“School Girls” has lots of laughs, but its focus on color bias and the racist ideals of beauty, to which the girls aspire to, reveal how people of color have been brainwashed to see their darker skin tone as a negative trait. This includes Asian women who undergo eye surgery to look more white and Indian women, who also have been ostracized for their dark skin.
This is a terrific production for not just teenage girls, but for anyone who wants to understand the social dynamics of teen girls and more complex themes like the negative impact of colorism.
The play runs through Oct. 20. For tickets, visit www.roundhousetheatre.org.