SCHOOL GIRLS OR, THE AFRICAN MEAN GIRLS PLAY by Jocelyn Bioh (Obsidian Theatre/Nightwood Theatre). At Buddies in Bad Times (12 Alexander). Runs to March 24. Pwyc-$40. 416-975-8555, buddiesinbadtimes.com. See listing. Rating: NNNN
Music from the 1980s figures prominently in Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls: Or, The African Mean Girls Play, especially the R&B rhythms of Whitney Houston and the boy-band New Edition. And like those chart-topping musicians, this play features some impressive talent.
Set in 1986 at an exclusive girls’ boarding school in Ghana run by headmistress Francis (Akosua Amo-Adem), School Girls examines the complex relationships of a group of black teenagers, including Paulina (Natasha Mumba), Ama (Rachel Mutombo), Nana (Tatyana Mitchell) and cousins Gifty (Emerjade Simms) and Mercy (Bria McLaughlin).
Paulina has presided over this clique for years, enforcing rules for how they look and behave. But her control begins to topple when new student Ericka (Melissa Eve Langdon), the daughter of a mixed-race couple, moves from Ohio. Things become further complicated by Eloise (Allison Edwards-Crewe) who arrives to recruit one girl to compete in the upcoming Miss Ghana beauty contest and hopefully move on to become Miss Global Universe.
As pageant fervour takes hold, each person has different motives regarding who should represent the school. Playwright Bioh uses this to explore the political and social pressures of shadeism and the constraints of female beauty. The perception of never measuring up and the desire for popularity and acceptance are specific to these girls but also universal. Bioh’s characters are strong and clearly defined. Even when Eloise uses euphemisms to explain the pageant’s beauty standards, the meaning is abundantly clear.
One quibble is that some of the spiteful dissing between students feels soap-opera-like, but perhaps I was just fortunate not to encounter that degree of nastiness in my own adolescence.
Although School Girls tackles serious matters, it’s very funny. Laughs come from beauty pageant rehearsals and braggart Paulina’s misconceptions of American brands and sayings.
Director Nina Lee Aquino carries the humour into the staging, like placing the girls on cafeteria tables in a dreamlike sequence. The comedic timing of the pageant audition, with the students going for broke singing The Greatest Love Of All, escalates into one of the most memorable scenes. And the cast members have tons of fun popping their collars and grooving to Tawiah Ben M’Carthy’s movement sequences.
Ultimately, it’s the superb casting that makes School Girls so credible. The actors really capture the volatility of adolescence: the tensions, erratic behaviour and giggling in hormonal overdrive. In the roles of mentors, Edwards-Crewe and Amo-Adem remind us how difficult it can be to shed our past lives.