Teenage girls worldwide struggle with a number of the same issues—body image, fitting in at school, planning for the future, dealing with societal and familial pressures. But while many of these issues are universal, there are also major differences depending on where in the world girls grow up. School Girls, Or, the African Mean Girls Play opened in Los Angeles at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre this weekend after an acclaimed Off-Broadway run last year. Written by Jocelyn Bioh, it follows a group of girls at a boarding school in Ghana in 1986 who are obsessed with the idea of getting to represent their country in the Miss Global Universe pageant.
Paulina (Maameyaa Boafo) is the queen bee of Aburi Girls Boarding School—the Regina George, if you will. She has carefully cultivated her own group of Plastics—Ama (Latoya Edwards), her smart and kind best friend who dreams of attending college in the United States, cousins Mercy (Mirirai Sithole) and Gifty (Paige Gilbert), witty girls who are always quick with a sarcastic comment, and Nana (Abena Mensah-Bonsu), a loyal former social outcast whom Paulina “saved” from a life of isolation. Paulina is a serial liar, often bragging about her cousins in America who work at fancy restaurants (actually just White Castle) and send her designer dresses (knock-offs from Canal Street) and her supposed soccer player boyfriend who never manages to materialize at any of the school dances. It is immediately apparent that while her “friends” know they are better off in her good graces than out of them, these relationships are not genuine. Paulina is manipulative and cruel. Jealous of Ama’s boyfriend who actually exists, she makes up a story about him flirting with her at the last dance, and she mercilessly teases Nana about her weight, criticizing every item of food she chooses to put on her lunch tray.
More than anything, Paulina wants to go to the Miss Ghana pageant, and is certain she will be the girl the recruiter chooses from her school—until a new student arrives. Ericka (Joanna A. Jones) is the daughter of a wealthy cocoa factory mogul and has spent most of her life growing up in America. She has no accent, significantly lighter skin than any of the other girls, and quickly becomes an enchanting and exotic figure to Paulina’s minions, grabbing their attention with actual kindness and the promise of sharing American hair and makeup products.
When the pageant recruiter, Eloise (Zenzi Williams) arrives, Headmistress Francis (Myra Lucretia Taylor) is none too thrilled to see her—some people never quite outgrow their “mean girl” status, and Eloise is no exception. She frequently brags that she was Miss Ghana 1966, and is determined to find this year’s winner, which would earn a monetary bonus for both her and the school. Naturally, she is immediately taken by Ericka, convinced her lighter skin will make her more likely to have the universal appeal the pageant judges value nowadays. Of course, this puts all of Paulina’s dreams at risk, and the conflict that ensues is brutal and heartbreaking.
Directed by Rebecca Taichman, one of the major themes in School Girls is beauty, and how that is defined by both society and girls around the world. Of course, this is a perfect theme to explore with characters who are teenage girls. Paulina is so obsessed with achieving what she has been told by society is a certain ideal that she uses bleaching cream on her skin, even when it makes her break out in bloody blisters. All of the girls desperately wish to see a Miss Ghana make it all the way in the Miss Universe pageant, but know only a girl with an appearance like Ericka’s could ever give them that shot—and even then, would it be enough? Even Eloise, who is dark-skinned herself, only made it so far as a pageant queen in a world that largely values a standard of beauty that does not look like her. Being an insecure teenage girl is hard enough for white girls in the United States, with many examples of beauty to relate to and look up to, but in Ghana, these girls have to come of age in a world where they are already made to feel “other” and different. And, unfortunately, girls so often instinctually try to make themselves feel better by putting others down, which helps no one in the end.
There are many elements to admire in School Girls—certainly Bioh’s writing, which is sharp, smart, and concise. Boafo’s performance as Paulina is one for the ages. She shifts so seamlessly from arrogant, devilish mean girl to being completely and utterly vulnerable. Watch her in the background in any scene where Ericka is doing anything remotely interesting, and your heart will break in a way you would not think possible for a character who spends the opening moments of the play ruthlessly belittling her own supposed best friends. School Girls does a fantastic job of making a specific situation feel as universal as possible, while still making audience members less familiar with African culture consider a new set of norms and issues.
School Girls runs at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre through September 30th. The running time is 75 minutes, no intermission. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased here. Following the Los Angeles run, School Girls will have an encore run at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in New York from October 16 through November 25, 2018. Those tickets can be purchased here.