Putting a new twist on the age-old trope of the mean but secretly insecure queen bee and her gaggle of devoted followers, Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play is currently receiving its New England premiere in a SpeakEasy Stage production directed by Summer L. Williams.
This production, it must be said from the outset, is that rare instance of perfect theatrical harmony where all the components coalesce into something that is both unmissable and unforgettable, a gorgeously acted production of a play that goes down easy yet stings with some uncomfortable truths.
Set at a private boarding school in Ghana in 1986, the girls are abuzz with the news that a Miss Ghana recruiter will be coming to the school to select a girl to represent Ghana in that year’s Global Universe Pageant. Queen bee Paulina (an extraordinary Ireon Roach) believes that she is a shoo-in, that is at least until new student Ericka (Victoria Byrd) arrives.
While Paulina dazzles her friends with her feigned familiarity and connections to America (they idolize American culture), the Ohio-raised Ericka—along with her light skin and gorgeous hair—is an immediate threat. So Paulina does what all mean girls do best and blackmails another student, Nana (a terrific Shanelle Chloe Villegas), into helping her dig up some dirt on her new nemesis.
But School Girls cuts deeper than just teenage jealousy, and it is in its exploration of the internalized racism and colorism that has been ingrained in these girls from such a young age that gives it its profundity. When we find out that Paulina’s mother bought her skin-bleaching cream instead of food because she thought it would serve her better, our dislike of Paulina gives way to empathy, but it is ultimately Ireon Roach’s tender and fractured performance that does most of the heavy lifting.
The other girls in the group, Gifty (Geraldine Bogard), Mercy (Tenneh Sillah), and Ama (Sabrina Victor)—all of whom give uncommonly realistic performances—seem less obsessed with the shade of their skin than Paulina does, but they are all keenly aware that, in the eyes of the rest of the world, lighter skin is more beautiful skin. And watching the smiles fade from their faces as they realize that, when all is said and done, the world’s most beautiful women are all white is as emotionally devastating as any moment I’ve seen on stage this year.
I have long been a fan of the work of director Summer L. Williams, who regularly directs some of the most daring and thoughtful plays in Boston, and School Girls is another win for a director who is never afraid to go big and to ask big questions. The miracle of her production here is the painstakingly realistic performances that not only bring us inextricably into the lives of these characters half a world away, but also face to face with our own privilege. This is what theater is all about.
SCHOOL GIRLS; OR, THE AFRICAN MEAN GIRLS PLAY. THROUGH 5.25 AT SPEAKEASY STAGE, 527 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. SPEAKEASYSTAGE.COM
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.