School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play - Speakeasy Stage Company
School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play – Speakeasy Stage Company
Review by James Wilkinson
School Girls; Or the African Mean Girls Play is presented by Speakeasy Stage Company. Written by Jocelyn Bioh. Directed by Summer L. Williams. Scene design by Baron E. Pugh. Costume Design by Miranda Kau Giurleo. Lighting Design by Devorah Kengmana. Sound Design by Allyssa Jones.
The cafeteria at an African all-girls school becomes a battleground in Speakeasy Stage’s new production, School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play. The play by Jocelyn Bioh focuses on a group of girls attending the school and it earns the second half of its title. It’s the mid-80s and the girls are giddy with anticipation for the arrival of beauty pageant scout who will be coming to potentially pick a competitor for the Miss Ghana pageant. The one who gets the crown will go on to compete against the winners from countries all over the world. Resident Queen Bee, Paulina (Ireon Roach) seems a shoe-in to chosen, but a wrench gets thrown into her plan with the arrival of new student, Ericka (Victoria Byrd). Due to Ericka’s parentage (white mother and black father), her complexion is much fairer (i.e. whiter) than the rest of the girls at the school. The pageant scout almost immediately latches on to Ericka, thinking that her lighter complexion will make it easier for her to compete on the world stage. When Paulina senses the potential for her best laid plans to go up in smoke, she strikes out in a way that has consequences for everyone in the school.
In short, Speakeasy’s production is fantastic, but it’s a strange kind of fantastic, the kind that’s hard to nail down in a blurb. A day after seeing the play, a friend asked me what I thought of it and I spent a minute stammering, “It’s great because-…I mean, it’s great…You know, it’s great…It’s just great.” It’s not that I can’t identify good things in it; it’s that what makes it so good is that’s its one of those magical productions where all of the elements seem to come together. It feels wrong to break it down into parts. You’re left wanting to tell people to just go see it for themselves and experience the piece as a whole (which, by the way, I recommend that you do). However, I suppose that it’s my job to be bit more critical than that, so let’s give this thing a whirl.
The assembled acting team has a stage presence that’s nothing short of tremendous. It’s the kind that grabs your attention without even appearing to try. You can feel it from the moment the lights go up, everyone on stage practically seems to be glowing, their power growing exponentially with each new entrance. I think that a lot of attention will be heaped upon Ireon Roach’s performance as Paulina, and rightfully so. She struts across the stage like royalty and gives a no holds barred performance, unafraid to dig into the nastier aspects of Paulina’s personality. It’s remarkable then, when later in the show, as Paulina’s dreams are crushed, Roach is able to flip the switch and elicit our empathy. However, I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that I also think that part of the reason that Roach is so good is that she’s surrounded by a such a strong team. I was particularly struck by Shanelle Choe Villegas, who does something remarkable as Nana, one of the school girls in Paulina’s orbit. Villegas is playing a character that’s shy and reserved, the sort of person who should fade into the background. But something about the way Villegas holds herself on stage pulls us in. She tilts her head downward in embarrassment and we lean forward, wanting to engage with the character.
The script by playwright Jocelyn Bioh is probably one of smartest that I’ve heard this year. It’s not the most formally inventive one (that particular prize goes to The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart at Apollinaire Theatre), but it’s an incredibly tight and assured piece of work. Bioh knows exactly what she wants to do and lays out her script in a way that allows her to build her case brick by brick. She wants to provoke a conversation about colorism, about the destructive power that it can have, particularly over the relationships between women. Thankfully, however, she never sacrifices character in pursuit of those conversations. Each of Bioh’s school girls is allowed to be their own complete human being that we’re encouraged to empathize with. That we do build those relationships is something of a minor miracle when you consider how Bioh keeps throwing curveballs to complicate our responses to the characters. There’s a reason the subtitle for the piece is The African Mean Girls Play and the audience I saw the show with was occasionally stunned into silence with just how cruel the characters remarks to each other could be. The play can also be quite funny, but it’s the moments when the characters go for the throat that knock you off your feet. You feel like you shouldn’t be aligning yourself with people who can be so cruel, but the script lets us see that for these characters this behavior is partly a survival technique.
This is a production that’s very much interested in cracking open appearances to see what’s underneath. Director Summer L. Williams (who directed one of my favorite shows from last year, Company One’s Wig Out), gives the show a staging that highlights an element of artificiality. The world’s a stage for these characters, at times it seems as though they’re already on that Miss Ghana stage. You can see it in how Paulina holds court, moving through poses as she makes her decrees. She’s playing a part for the benefit of her schoolmates because she thinks that’s where she gets her power from. It’s an image her schoolmates will be all too happy to shatter later in the play.
Some might think that the 1980s setting is just an excuse to indulge in some period appropriate fashion, but I don’t think the play would have the power that it does if it was set in present day. There’s a reason that this play is set in the 80s, just as there’s a reason why we keep hearing the Whitney Houston song, “Greatest Love of All” (the opening lines of which are “I believe the children are the future/teach them well and let them lead the way”). Setting the play so far back allows us to consider how the behavior we’re watching extends over time. How societal systems perpetuate themselves through generations and how people compromise in an effort to carve out a place for themselves. Ultimately Bioh argues that no one wins when we make those compromises. So, what then are we going to do about it?
School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play is presented by Speakeasy Stage Company May 3-25, 2019 at the Boston Center for the Arts.
For tickets and more information, visit their website: www.speakeasystage.com