MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher St. between Bleecker & Hudson Sts.
Tuesday - Sunday through December 31, $49-$125
Actress Jocelyn Bioh’s professional playwriting debut is a sharp, uproarious tale of a clique of young boarding school students in central Ghana who can be as nasty as they wanna be, able to go toe-to-toe with Cady, Regina, Gretchen, Janis, and Karen from Mark Waters’s 2004 hit movie, Mean Girls. Bioh, who has appeared in such plays as Suzan-Lori Parks’s In the Blood, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Everybody and An Octoroon, and Jaclyn Backhaus’s Men on Boats, even references the film, which was written by Tina Fey (and is coming to Broadway as a musical in the spring), in the title of her show, School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play, making its MCC world premiere at the Lucille Lortel through December 31. It’s 1986, and the students at Aburi Girls Boarding School are getting ready to audition for the Miss Ghana beauty pageant. Paulina Sarpong (MaameYaa Boafo) is the egotistical, narcissistic leader of a group of girls, willing to say or do just about anything to remain in charge. She brags about her soccer-playing boyfriend and how she is a shoo-in to be named Miss Ghana while brazenly putting down the rest of her crew, which consists of the tall, bright Ama (Níkẹ Kadri), the innocent, overweight Nana (Abena Mensah-Bonsu), and the twinlike duo of Gifty (Paige Gilbert) and Mercy (Mirirai Sithole). The power dynamic immediately shifts when headmistress Francis (Myra Lucretia Taylor) introduces a new student, Ericka Boafo (Nabiyah Be), a beautiful, talented, and bold young woman who quickly challenges Paulina’s authority. Of course, putting Paulina on the defensive is not something you want to do, unless you’re ready for the barrage that will follow. So when Miss Ghana 1966, Eloise Amponsah (Zainab Jah), whom Francis knows all too well, arrives to select one of the girls to compete in the pageant, the gloves are off and sides are chosen in a no-holds-barred battle for supremacy. “Headmistress likes to make everyone feel like they have a fair chance,” Paulina declares, “but we all know I’m the best.”
School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play was inspired by the true story of Yayra Erica Nego, the 2009 Miss Minnesota who went on to be named Miss Ghana 2011, a controversial decision for several reasons, including her fair skin, as well as by Rosalind Wiseman’s nonfiction book Queen Bees and Wannabes. In the seventy-five-minute play, Bioh, a first-generation Ghanaian American who went to boarding school in Hershey, Pennsylvania, explores such issues as body image and colorism, beauty and friendship, and race and class in this microcosmic Lord of the Flies scenario. Arnulfo Maldonado’s scenic design is simple but effective, a few tables in the school cafeteria, while Dede M. Ayite’s costumes change from the standard green-and-white school uniform to fancy dresses for the competition, giving each character a moment to shine. Tony-winning director Rebecca Taichman (Indecent, Familiar) keeps it all in check, never letting things get out of hand or become too clichéd. Be (Hadestown, Queen of the Night) is charming and delightful as Ericka, who has some secrets of her own; Jah (Eclipsed, In Darfur) brings heft to the complicated Eloise; and Taylor (Nine, Familiar) is warm and amiable as the caring, concerned Francis. The rest of the cast is terrific as well, although the character of queen bee Paulina can come off as too harsh at times, going too far and getting away with too much. School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play is no mere African American version of Mean Girls; instead, it is as smart and entertaining, as sweet and honest, its characters as obnoxious and horrible and lovable and vulnerable, as teen girls themselves.