From the Heathers to the Plastics, teenage girls and their cliques have proved to be a sturdy source of pop culture anthropology. And beauty pageants have also been fertile ground for satirical treatment, from Michael Ritchie‘s 1975 film Smile to Little Miss Sunshine. (And let’s not forget Annoyance Theatre’s long-running 1990s hit, The Miss Vagina Pageant, created by Faith and Joey Soloway.)
But Jocelyn Bioh‘s School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play isn’t going for low-hanging fruit of the “look-at-how-shallow-this-world-is” variety. Instead, it takes the basic plot of Mean Girls (new girl arrives and upends the social pecking order) and uses it as a springboard for examining postcolonialism and the whiteness of beauty standards.
Lili-Anne Brown‘s staging for the Goodman was in previews in March 2020 when . . . well, you know. A recording of one of the preview performances was briefly available last year, but now it’s back in all its hilarious and heartbreaking live glory on the Goodman’s Albert stage. (Brown and Goodman artistic director Robert Falls both made brief comments outside the theater opening night before a symbolic relighting of the Goodman marquee.)
It’s 1986, and the girls of the Aburi Girls Senior High (a real place where Bioh’s mother was a student) are awaiting the arrival of a representative who will give one of them the chance to be Miss Ghana at the Miss Global Universe pageant. The odds-on favorite is Paulina (Ciera Dawn), who rules over her minions with icy-cold Regina George-esque force. But her dominance is challenged by the arrival of Ericka Boafo (Kyrie Courter), the Ohio-raised daughter of a local cocoa plantation owner. (Bioh’s story was inspired in part by 2009’s Miss Minnesota, Erica Nego, who also was elected Miss Universe Ghana in 2011.)
Ericka’s kinder to the other girls than Paulina (admittedly a low bar to clear). She also has access to American beauty products and knowledge of pop culture that sets her apart. But it’s her light skin that makes her the favorite of Eloise Amponsah (Lanise Antoine Shelley), an Aburi alum who was Miss Ghana 1966 and who is determined to mentor a girl who can win it all on the international stage. And if that means catering to colorism, so be it.
Bioh’s script and Brown’s staging both work in beautiful synch at unpeeling the complicated layers of these young women’s lives. And the older women’s, too—the conflict between Shelley’s self-conscious glamour-puss (she seems to be channeling Joan Collins‘s Alexis Colby from Dynasty at some points) and the sturdy earnestness of her former classmate, Headmistress Francis (Tania Richard) suggests how long the stab wounds of adolescent battles take to heal.
Ghana only gained independence from Great Britain in 1957—less than ten years before Eloise won her title. In 1986, no Black African woman had won an international pageant, and wouldn’t until Mpule Kwelagobe won Miss Universe in 1999. (Vanessa Williams won the Miss America title in 1983, only to resign under pressure from the pageant and the media when Penthouse published nude photos of her without permission. Williams got an apology from the Miss America organization—in 2016.)
The idea that these women aren’t just representing their own dreams but those of a country struggling to emerge from the oppression of colonialism is threaded throughout the play, as is the question of how best to counter the standards and stereotypes placed upon them by others. Beat them at their own game, or realize that the game isn’t worth the candle? Bioh doesn’t provide simple answers. Instead, she provides a chance for young Black women to experience joy, friendship, and conflict, and finally express understanding for the burdens they’re all carrying that are too often unspoken.
Of course painful secrets are revealed and schemes are upended. Neither Paulina nor Ericka are exactly who they seem to be at the beginning. But Brown keeps a firm handle on the shifts between the ridiculous (a practice pageant where the girls sing “Greatest Love of All” is a comic highlight) and the poignant. The entire eight-actor ensemble is delightful, but Ashley Crowe as good-hearted Nana, whose penchant for snacking and access to the headmistress’s records is exploited by Paulina, is particularly striking. She fully embodies a young woman who just wants to fit into a world that generally seems intent on either ignoring her or constantly finding fault.
At a well-paced 80 minutes, School Girls fills the Goodman stage with a smart and sly assessment of the undue burdens placed on Black women just for existing in their own skin. (Our current vice president apparently can’t even laugh without it being used as a cudgel against her.) Bioh’s play makes its points within a familiar narrative framework, but fleshes them out with subtle yet sharp observational humor and great warmth and empathy for the girls at the heart of the story. v