'School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play': Theater Review

School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play Production Still 1 - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Joan Marcus
Beats Tina Fey's upcoming Broadway musical to the punch.

Actress-turned-playwright Jocelyn Bioh's debut comedy depicts catfighting among the students at a girls' boarding school in Ghana, competing for a place in a beauty pageant.

It's comforting to know that America doesn't have a monopoly on mean girls. They're apparently all over the world, including Ghana, where Jocelyn Bioh's off-Broadway comedy is set. Depicting the conflicts that arise at a girl's boarding school over the impending selection of a beauty pageant contestant, School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play is a ferociously entertaining morality tale that proves as heartwarming as it is hilarious.

Receiving its world premiere with MCC Theater, the 1986-set play immediately establishes that the school's reigning queen bee is Paulina (MaameYaa Boafo), who has a soccer-playing boyfriend and clearly the best chance of being selected as the year's Miss Ghana. Paulina lords it over her devoted posse, and not always nicely, as evidenced by her verbal abuse of the overweight Nana (Abena Mensah-Bonsu). "Are you determined to look like a cow?" Paulina asks Nana after seeing her eating porridge.

Paulina's position at the top of the pecking order becomes threatened by Ericka (Nabiyah Be), a Ghanaian-born student newly arrived from America. Gorgeous, fair-skinned and extremely personable, Ericka quickly captivates the girls who eagerly take her up on her offer to come to her dorm room for a makeover party. Paulina, so self-conscious about her dark skin that she once injured herself by applying bleaching cream to her face, realizes that Ericka could be formidable competition; she orders Nana to purloin her rival's file from the office of Headmistress Francis (Myra Lucretia Taylor).

Paulina's fears prove prescient with the arrival of Eloise (Zainab Jah), the pageant's elegant recruiter, who was herself Miss Ghana 1966. When Eloise spots Ericka she immediately sees the beautiful young woman as her own stepping stone to a promotion. "We are looking for girls that fall on the other end of the African skin spectrum," she informs the headmistress. But her plan becomes complicated by the damaging information in Ericka's personal file that Paulina is happy to exploit.

Bioh — a Ghanaian-American actress who has appeared in such plays as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, An Octoroon and Everybody — makes an auspicious playwriting debut with this uproarious comedy that also pulls at the heartstrings. The clever writing features plenty of astute period-appropriate touches, such as the girls' nearly falling over when informed that the new Miss Ghana will be accompanying Bobby Brown to an awards show. And their group rendition of "The Greatest Love of All" as an audition piece, in which Ericka dramatically displays vocal talent to match her beauty, proves a show-stopping highlight.  

The broad humor occasionally lacks subtlety, and the piece, running a mere 75 minutes, feels like an extended one-act. But when was the last time you wished a play were actually longer? And while clearly designed to appeal to teen girls (there isn't a male in the cast, by the way), its themes are universal enough to resonate with any demographic.

Rebecca Taichman, a recent Tony Award winner for Indecent, provides a fast-paced staging that makes the play engaging from first minute to last. She elicits terrific performances from the ensemble, which also includes Paige Gilbert, Nike Kadri and Mirirai Sithole as students. Boafo superbly conveys the insecurities that fuel Paulina's aggression; Be forcefully illustrates that Ericka is no pushover despite her sweetness; and Taylor movingly projects both the principal's steeliness and tenderness toward her unruly charges.  

School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play (even the title is fun) arrives as a delightful surprise. Although currently scheduled only for a limited run, it seems inevitable for a commercial transfer once word gets out.

Venue: Lucille Lortel Theater, New York
Cast: Nabiyah Be, MaameYaa Boafo, Paige Gilbert, Zainab Jah, Nike Kadri, Abena Mensah-Bonsu, Mirirai Sithole, Myra Lucretia Taylor
Playwright: Jocelyn Bioh
Director: Rebecca Taichman
Set designer: Arnulfo Maldonado
Costume designer: Dede M. Ayite
Lighting designer: Jen Schriever
Sound designer: Palmer Hefferan
Presented by MCC Theater