I’m sure that anyone who knows me won’t be surprised that I’m not really a fan of American high school comedies (Heathers, Clueless etc.) of which there always seem to be a plentiful supply. As the current parlance has it, the characters “don’t speak to me” as their concerns are not and have never been something which I find particularly entertaining or interesting. It was therefore with some trepidation that I approached School Girls an American play from a few years ago which I feared would just be a retread of the tropes that appear in this aspect of cinema. Why even the second part of the full title (The African Mean Girls Play) pays apparent homage to one of the most well-known of the genre.
What I saw took the format sure enough but did something of greater significance with it. New Yorker Jocelyn Bioh’s play is set in a mid-1980s girls’ school in Ghana where the students are anxiously awaiting a visitor. She is a representative of the selection committee looking for candidates for the Miss Ghana beauty pageant which might eventually lead to a global contest. Queen bee Paulina (Maameyaa Boafo) is 100% certain she will be selected. Revealed later as a rather vulnerable character she is first seen as being very much in charge of her clique insisting that they slather her with flattery while at the same time denigrating them at every turn. One of her very first remarks is to compare her overweight loyal supporter Nana (Abena Mensah-Bonsu) to a cow. In truth it is Paulina who exhibits bovine qualities as she systematically bullies her way to peer acclaim; the moment her back is turned the other girls reveal their concerns about the pecking order. Sorry to mix my metaphors there, but into this human farmyard comes outsider Ericka (Joanna J. Jones). She arrives fresh from America to finish her education and with her (apparent) self-assurance but infinitely more friendly demeanour is immediately taken up by everyone except Paulina who sees her as a rival. Ericka has better taste in clothes, sings like an angel and is popular without having to try; crucially she also has a naturally lighter skin tone – and that’s what the pageant judges are going to be looking for on the “African skin spectrum”. Tensions come to a head with a bitter argument breaking out during the audition process which features an hilarious group rendition of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love”. Both Paulina and Ericka turn out to be more similar than they realise, having underlying confidence issues even if they are tackling the problem in radically different ways.
The play covers a lot of ground in its short (75 minutes) running time, examining issues surrounding self-esteem, social status, education, mental health, the role of young women in African society and the horrific practice of skin bleaching, the products for which are seen as providing a quick solution to a perceived “problem”. And in a nice bit of paralleling the issue of clique domination is shown to be ongoing down the generations. The school headmistress (Myra Lucretia Taylor) and the pageant judge and ex Miss Ghana 1966 (Zenzi Williams) were once at school together and clearly inhabited the same sort of social structure as the girls; these are roles that they quickly fall back into with the latter trying to quietly bully the former – though rather less successfully it has to be said.
Everything takes place in the school cafeteria though nobody actually seems to eat anything other than things they shouldn’t be – perhaps there is a point being made about this. It’s part of the tropes of the genre to gather students together in a communal area where formalities can be relaxed. However, I didn’t really get much of a sense of the wider life of the school; indeed, one might think that there were only six students attending. It’s a perennial problem with school based plays so none the worse for that though perhaps some offstage sound effects of hustle and bustle might have helped credulity. There’s a good ensemble feel to the piece and even the lesser roles have moments in which they can shine; I particularly liked the scene where one of the girls helps another with her reading and that the chosen author was that staple of mid 80s teenage literature, Judy Blume. At the time I was in charge of the school library, and it reminded me that her books used to fly off the shelves. I still don’t think I’ll be seeking out any of the films mentioned above any time soon, but I did enjoy this play which highlights some important issues and does so in a manner that doesn’t either drag or preach.