Imagine the cult-classic millennial satire Mean Girls (2004) transposed to ’80s Africa and starring six high-school seniors at the Aburi Girls Boarding School competing for the crown of Miss Ghana 1986. That’s the pleasantly unorthodox premise of MCC Theater’s production of the New York playwright Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play, which is running at the Lucille Lortel Theater through December 31. Directed by Rebecca Taichman (a Tony winner this year for Indecent), the show takes the familiarly American template and infuses it with the world and the specifics of Bioh’s Ghanaian-immigrant parents. To the surprise of nobody in my audience, the teenagers here prove just as catty and human as Lindsay Lohan and company.
The Aburi girls all vie for the attention of the pageant recruiter, Eloise Amponsah, played by the regal and remorseless Zainab Jah. Eloise’s dogged determination to find the “right” girl is guided by the potential for more exposure and money for the school — and, therefore, more clout for herself. But Eloise knows that for her girls to compete successfully on a global level, “right” means “white,” and the closest thing the Aburi Girls Boarding School has to offer is Ericka Boafo (Nabiyah Be), a biracial girl from America who finds herself in Ghana under the care of her estranged father. Coy but vivacious, the half-Ghanaian, half-white Ericka charms her peers with her light skin, curly hair, and American anecdotes about New Edition concerts, White Castle meals, and Calvin Klein dresses. This attention infuriates Paulina Sarpong, the school’s alpha mean girl (played sinisterly and sincerely by MaameYaa Boafo), whose dark skin, coarse hair, and aggressive attitude all separate her from her fresh-faced rival. As her squad flocks to Ericka, Paulina begins plotting to orchestrate the newcomer’s demise.
Eloise’s efforts to steer the pageant in accordance with Westernized standards of beauty are abated — but, ultimately, not defeated — by Headmistress Francis (Myra Lucretia Taylor), whose moral compass remains intact throughout every conflict that arises. Indeed, she’s quick to remind the girls that “Education is the only gift that no one can take away,” all the while kindly encouraging their adolescent fantasies of winning a beauty pageant. But Francis’s harangues toward Eloise are all for naught: Instead of fairly assessing the prospects each girl has to offer — their grades, extracurriculars, talents, leadership skills — Eloise rejects the equally qualified but dark-skinned Paulina and chooses Ericka to represent Ghana in the pageant. This outcome leaves Paulina bawling in the corner, bleeding from an application of a skin-bleaching cream she’d acquired to impress Eloise. Eloise’s cold response: “Who cares about Paulina?!”
Though Paulina on paper makes for the perfect high-school villain — the ultra-popular, ultra-smart, ultra-pretty mean girl — it’s easier to sympathize with her than to scorn her. All the prevailing plights of young African women — colorism, classism, nationalism, unattainable Western beauty standards — are channeled through her. Callous and as cruel though she may be, Paulina’s presence brings darkness and lightness to the story. As with the eponymous American movie, the girls — who know each other’s strengths and weaknesses almost like the back of their hands — regularly air out their issues in drag-down shouting matches of scathing insults and hidden truths. During the climax, Paulina swindles the meek Nana (played by Abena Mensah-Bonsu with soft strength) into fetching Ericka’s permanent records, which unveil that the new girl was born in America to a white mother. Paulina proclaims that Ericka is a “bastard,” anything but a “real” Ghanian. Nana, in turn, pushes back, calling out Paulina’s manipulation and maliciousness. Eventually, Ericka comes face-to-face-with Paulina and — in a line that immediately exposes the mean girl’s fundamental insecurities — cries the ultimate high-school indignity: “You’re a bitch!”
The story may present them as opposing forces, but Paulina and Ericka exist in worlds that collide with each other. Paulina’s is story of poverty and parental misguidance; it’s her mother who gifts her the skin-bleaching cream that lands her in the hospital with burns and lesions. Ericka, for her part, was abandoned by her father and raised in an all-white neighborhood in middle America without an ounce of wealth — much to the other girls’ surprise. She also knows very little of her Ghanaian side, and is thus out of touch with her Blackness. Each girl envies the other. Paulina is rooted in her Blackness, culture, and family; she knows where she comes from. Ericka’s whiteness and Americanness, meanwhile, give her a pass through society, granting her privileges in Ghana that will take her further than her counterparts. She even emerges as a viable contestant for the “Miss Universe” pageant.
As sprightly and funny as the play is — with the girls’ beyond-comical choir rendition of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” to prove it — there’s still a heaviness to it. Seldom is this side of Africa seen: everyday teenage life, beauty, community, vulnerability, humor — humanity. Late in School Girls, the crew gathers around a tiny television set and watches with bated breath to see whether Ericka — seemingly their sole hope of witnessing Ghana break into the global sphere of beauty — makes it to the top ten “Miss Universe” contestants. The announcer calls country after country, the majority of them European and Latin. Then, finally, South Africa is mentioned, and the girls cheer at the prospect of a fellow African girl taking the stage. But when Miss South Africa’s visage graces the screen and they see that she, too, is white, the room falls into an elongated sigh. Switzerland rounds off the runner-ups; Ericka doesn’t make the cut. Africa just can’t seem to win.