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Theatre in Review: School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play (MCC Theater)

Nabiyah Be, Myra Lucretia Taylor. Photo: Joan Marcus.

The mean girls phenomenon has been so thoroughly worked over in books and films -- not to mention a certain musical coming our way this spring -- that one wonders if a writer can bring anything fresh to it; she can if her name is Jocelyn Bioh. Most depictions of social mayhem as practiced by adolescent females locate such behavior in an upscale American environment; the playwright, making a simple yet bold gesture, sets her characters loose in Ghana, circa 1986, letting them run riot in a girls' boarding school. In choosing another time and place, she actually sharpens her points about racial and gender identity, showing that yesterday's questions are not very different from those of today.

The queen bee in this little hive is Paulina, who is both social arbiter and catalyst for conflict. The other girls, who are perfectly sweet when she isn't around, are cowed in her presence, dutifully soaking up stories about her many American cousins and her soccer-player boyfriend -- sports and the US being, in their eyes, the two main sources of glamour. We instantly know that there is something wrong with this picture -- among other things, the beau never seems to appear and Paulina brags about the aunt who works at that posh New York restaurant, White Castle, when not shopping at those centers of chic, Conway, Walmart, and "the most famous retail place in all of New York" -- Chinatown. Nevertheless, she lords it over her friends with a free hand, grandly patronizing them and handing out insults in the guise of sisterly concern. As the play begins, she is helpfully informing her plus-size classmate Nana that if she ate less porridge she wouldn't be quite so fat. She even offers to get her friend an apple -- a small one, mind you.

Bioh establishes the microworld of the school with a gleeful eye for pretension and passing pop culture fads. Paulina, operatically counting her blessings, murmurs "I'm so blessed" with the fake humility of a long-odds Oscar winner. Nevertheless, she has no college ambitions, seeing higher education as little more than a roadblock on her path to becoming "the next Iman." One of the play's tastiest running gags involves the girls' swooning devotion to that R&B heartthrob Bobby Brown.

If the girls chafe under Paulina's rule, none of them has the gumption to do anything about it. But the social order is overturned by the arrival of Ericka, the daughter of a local (and wealthy) cocoa manufacturer, who has been living in America. Compared to Paulina's spurious prestige-by-association, Ericka is, apparently, the real thing, and, best of all, she is authentically friendly, instantly winning over Paulina's sycophants with the offer of a makeover party featuring her stash of real American cosmetics.

In the face of such rebellion, the face of MaameYaa Boafo, who plays Paulina, turns to stone. Even more threatening is the appearance of Eloise, an alumna of the school (and dedicated frenemy of Headmistress Francis, who rides herd on the girls). A former Miss Ghana -- a fact she manages to work into nearly every sentence -- Eloise is on hand to select one girl from the school for this year's pageant. Paulina considers the position hers by right -- and she is stunned to realize that Eloise, determined that the next contest winner make it all the way to the Miss Global Universe pageant, is instantly drawn to Ericka, who, unlike Paulina, is naturally light-skinned.

This news sets the stage for all sorts of skullduggery -- including theft and blackmail -- followed by a confrontation so furious that it blows the girls' little world to smithereens. Bioh skillfully complicates the picture, revealing heretofore unseen vulnerabilities in Paulina while also making clear that Ericka's background isn't as privileged as it first appears. She also works in plot twists involving a thieved student file, a jar of skin-bleaching cream, and a potential cash windfall for the money-strapped school, all of which keep one guessing what will happen next.

Rebecca Taichman's direction hits all the right notes, lightly spoofing the girls' aspirations -- both in a series of entrances showing off their catwalk moves and in a choral rendition of "The Greatest Love of All" (as made famous by Bobby Brown's future wife, Whitney Houston) -- while also demonstrating that these beautiful, bubbly, intelligent young creatures are beguiling enough without having to borrow from Western culture. The cast is loaded with fresh faces you'll want to see again, beginning with Boafo, whose fury is so clearly motivated by shame and self-hatred, and Nabiyah Be, as Ericka, who sheathes a surprising amount of steel with her initially casual, affable manner. Their gloves-off confrontation searingly exposes exactly how much is at stake for each of them. There are also distinctive contributions from Myra Lucretia Taylor -- stately, maternal, and possibly corruptible as Headmistress Francis -- and Zainab Jah, slinky and ulterior as Eloise, especially when calmly letting everyone know that the fix is in. The others, including Abena Mensah-Bonsu -- a constant figure of disapprobation as big-boned Nana -- form a seamless ensemble.

The production benefits from a first-rate production design, beginning with Arnulfo Maldonado's set, depicting a cement-walled, tin-roofed school building. Jen Schriever's lighting mixes warm sunshine washes with amusing purplish-pink chases for some of the girls' more delirious fantasies. Dede M. Ayite's costumes shrewdly individualize each girl's school-uniform look and draw telling contrasts between the kente-cloth outfits favored by Francis and the sleek, body-hugging '80s couture sported by Eloise; the girls' collection of party dresses, seen in the choral sequence, also amuse. Sound design is of paramount importance here, as the suspenseful climax -- a broadcast of the Miss Global Universe pageant -- is heard but not seen; fortunately, Palmer Hefferan delivers the goods.

The aftermath of the pageant broadcast leads to a moment of truth in which everyone comes to understand the falsity of their aspirations, based as they are on another culture's standards of beauty. Where they go from here is anyone's guess, but it's easy to imagine bright futures for them, now that they're wised-up. It's even easier to imagine bright futures for the talented young ladies of the cast and their playwright, all of whom make their mark in this delightful comedy-drama. -- David Barbour


(27 November 2017)

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