I was never part of the popular group of girls at school but I always wanted to be like them. I wasn’t part of a clique but I later rolled with laughter at the catty chaos in Mean Girls the movie. Jocelyn Bioh’s Ghanaian take on popular girl culture is even funnier. Underneath the laughter and quick quips is an important reflection on colourism within westernised beauty standards.
The year is 1986, the play opens up to a warm sun-washed stage. We are at the Aburi Girls Boarding School where the students are excitedly preparing for the Miss Ghana pageant. All of the girls sit in awe of Paulina (Tara Tijani). She is the most popular girl in school and is tipped to win the competition. She has a cruel attitude towards her friends Mercy (Bola Akeju), Gifty (Francesca Amewudah-Rivers) and a very fed-up Ama (Heather Agyepong). Ama is Paulina’s best friend but she is tired of her attitude. Paulina is increasingly cruel to shy girl Nana (beautifully played by Jadesola Odunjo).
Before we can get comfortable, new girl Ericka (Anna Shaffer) transfers into the school and Paulina is immediately threatened by her. She is mixed race, was raised in America and has beautiful looks and lighter skin. Her father is a wealthy chocolate factory owner and Erica presents herself elegantly. Erica doesn’t want to knock Paulina off the top spot but the other girls hang onto her every word and end up leaving Paulina alone and bitter.
All of the girls have so much appeal; beauty, humor and undeniable star qualities but despite her background it’s Erica that the snooty pageant recruiter decides to take to Miss World. Deborah Ali commands the stage as the recruiter, this audacious character has little sympathy for the girls and no accountability for the harmful culture she is monopolizing on.
The show is 80 minutes straight through and it flies past. This funny coming of age drama is quickly dampened by the reality of what beauty standards look like and the girls realizing they don’t meet them. I’m sure a lot of the black women in the audience could resonate with these moments. The headmistress (Alison A Addo) is a needed addition to the cast. An older black woman who is dead set on uplifting and championing young dark skinned women in a world they aren’t recognised in. It’s touching and feels momentous for the UK theatre industry.
What I find so affirming about this play is that all of the characters have a moment of strength and speak up for themselves. Their defences may be catty at times and boy do they stoop low but you can feel (and hear) the audience rooting for them. It’s an energy young black women seldom get to feel.
Director Monique Touko has taken the script and added a ferocious bite. The ensemble has a chemistry which feels like a lifetime of friendship. The set by Paul Wills is seamlessly slid around to work for all the scenes and some dance adds extra vibrancy to the already simmering stage.
School Girls, Or the African Mean Girls Play is about female power and identity. It’s an important reflection but it’s also uplifting and very necessary for young black women who need these stories told.
It runs until 15 July.
Review: Nicole Botha Photo: Manuel Harlan