By Eva Phillips
The ways girls behave and the things they do to one another within the overwhelming hives of school, their social structures, and their own minds is the source of great, and even morbid, fascination for so much media. In narratives like the gruesome unraveling stories of the popular-girl-who-snaps on Law and Order SVU, or the pointedly satirical films like Mean Girls, the machinations of a socially-invested teenage girl continue to be fodder for film, theatre, and literature alike.
Pittsburgh Public Theatre’s newest production, Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls; or The African Mean Girls Play, is, at a prima facie level, one such examination into the minds and social dynamics of a group of teenage girls. Bioh’s play, and Pittsburgh Public’s production, however, is infinitely more, both because they focus exclusively on black teenage girls–who are routinely and unacceptably marginalized, tokenized, hollowed out, or ignored entirely in so many artistic works–and for outrageous cleverness and complexity that thrills and compels from start to finish.
Set in 1986—a banner year for fashion and the former Mr. Whitney Houston, Bobby Brown—in a small girls boarding school situated in the Aburi Mountains in Central Ghana, five teenage friends, Paulina (Markia Nicole Smith), Mercy (Candace Boahene), Nana (Atiauna Grant), Gifty (Shakara Wright), and Ama (Ezioma Asonye) are excitedly preparing for the hotly-anticipated Miss Ghana competition, which will allow one of them to grace an international stage in the Miss World pageant. The dynamics of the friend group quickly and comically are revealed, and Paulina’s wrathful, possessive stronghold on the friend-group (that, like almost all social connections in high school, is just as arbitrary as it is unquestioned and steadfast) tightens as Paulina is determined to be the ideal potential selection for Miss Ghana. The girls’ already fraught social balance is thrown into disarray, however, when a new girl, Ericka Boafo (Aidaa Peerzada), threatens Paulina with her wealth, culture (of, you know, having lived in Ohio in the early 80s), beauty, talent, and other qualities that are disproportionately valued the hyper-concious, bigotry-tainted world in which the girls exist. When Eloise, a prominent figure on the selection committee for Miss Ghana (and the Miss Ghana of 1966) and former Aburi
student, makes her visit to the school early–surprising both the girls and Headmistress Francis (Shinnerrie Jackson), Eloise’s former classmate–tensions erupt, exposing hideous truths, heartbreaking realities, and testing the true mettle of all involved.
Before the show begins, we are introduced to the microcosmic world of Bioh’s characters by way of the gorgeous set, vividly designed by Ryan Howell. Howell’s schoolhouse set is marvelously detailed, with vibrant colors and charming nuances to boot, and Howell’s set is delightfully accentuated by exceptional costume design of Sarita Fellows (who manages to capture that stunning and surreal decadence of both boarding school attire and 80s fashion). The fabulously compelling world that Director Shariffa Ali orchestrates within Howell’s subtly lush scenery is one that is utterly unforgettable and exquisitely executed. Ali not only has a thorough grasp on the many dimensions and facets of Bioh’s script, but also has a directorial perspicacity and finesse that is a rare joy to encounter. Ali’s direction is masterful: from extraordinarily moving her players about the stage in ways that convey both emotional migrations and shifting social positions and hierarchies; to guiding the performers boldly to the gut-punch of an ending.
The importance and profound impact of seeing a play cast with all female and black performers cannot be understated; and the extraordinary talent of the ensemble, across the board, absolutely cannot be stated emphatically enough. Whether it is the wonderfully compassionate performance of Shinnerrie Jackson as Headmistress Francis; the perfectly cringe-worthy delivery of Melessie Clark as Eloise; or the wonderfully electric and studied performances of Aidaa Peerzada (Ericka), Ezioma Asonye (Ama) and Candace Boahene (Mercy), the cast is extraordinary both individually and in their finely-wrought rapport and onstage connection with one another.
In a resemble ensemble, it is necessary for the sake of word count to shout-out only threeperformers. As the presiding queen of mean and social manipulator Paulina, Markia Nicole Smith is astonishing. Smith’s deftness at alternating between obsequious charm, to
outright ruthless vitriol (her scenes vituperating Nana are some of the most chillingly familiar and on-point moments I’ve watched), to heartbreaking vulnerability and insecurity is phenomenal. Her performance and commitment to Paulina’s complexities (without shying away from her nastiness) is incredible. Playing a character I personally felt an overwhelming attachment to (I’m #teamnana, okay), Atiauna Grant makes an absolutely stellar Pittsburgh Public debut as Nana, combining authentically sweet, awkward sadness, superb comedic timing, and radiant poise (particularly when she comes into her own in spite of Paulina). And in a comedic tour-de-force performance (that never loses a bit a subtle vulnerability), Shakara Wright is absolutely delightful as Gifty–she channels goofy obliviousness while always maintaining effervescence, and shines as the comedic pulse of the show.
What Bioh accomplishes with her script that other “mean girls” narratives (whether that’s the Mean Girls or other comparable works) neglect or utterly fail to do, is convey the humanity of the girls of Aburi Mountain High. Without shirking away from the frivolous, reckless or even flat-out deplorable behavior we all engaged in to some degree when our brains were still massively undeveloped in high school, Bioh refuses to let her girls be one dimensional, or let their character-depth simply be their cruelty or idiosyncratic archetypes. There was mind-numbing zeitgeist (that horrifyingly coincided with my friends and me turning 13 and starting puberty), catalyzed by books like 2002’s Queen Bees and Wannabees…, and, of course, films like 2004’s Mean Girls, that created a “revelation” that girls could and did bully, manipulate, and engineer social hierarchies in ways commonly associated with cis boys/men. The revelation really started and ended there, to the extent that it became almost gauche to not assume a teenage girl was monolithically conniving, manipulative, and a sociopathic ruler over her own clique.
Bioh’s script, contrasting to the writing correlated to this “revelation” about teenage girls, embraces the vicious pettiness of girls while beautifully humanizing them and expounding upon the many internal and external pressures and prejudices that influence their behavior and personalities. Ali and the astronomical cast enliven Bioh’s script in a way that reflects this necessary multidimensionality. More importantly, the creative team of Pittsburgh Public’s School Girls has committed to producing a play that highlights and emphasizes the inexorable weight and matrices of intimate and systemic challenges uniquely thrust upon black girls and women. Every performance in School Girls brilliantly and achingly portrays what so often is missed in the “mean girls” lore: that these are just girls–growing, developing, learning about attraction, learning the limits of right and wrong—who are expected to deal with the racism, bigotry, body-shaming, and colorism with poise (and if they don’t, well, they’re bitches).
In the span of a tight hour and a half, Pittsburgh Public’s staging of School Girls successfully and impactfully traverses the unspeakable damages of colorism, racism, class-bias, the pernicious effects of unrealistic body shaming, the wounds that girls inherit that the previous generation is unable to/refuses to heal. All of this is seamlessly accomplished while presenting teenage girls in all their guts and glory, never shying away from their complicated humanity. This impressive production is best experienced audibly—cackling (guilty), gasping, snapping, and, of course, thunderously applauding. School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play is hilarious, impeccable staged, and not to be missed—both for its entertainment and its crucial message.
School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play plays at Pittsburgh Public’s O’Reilly Theater through Dec. 8. For tickets and more information, visit their site.
Photography Credit: Michael Henninger
Categories: Archived Reviews