By Tiffany Raymond, ‘Burgh Vivant
The Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production of “School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play” takes place in 1986 at a girls’ boarding school in Ghana. In delving into pecking orders and prettiness rankings, Ghanaian American playwright, Jocelyn Bioh, makes transparent the universal nature of high school mean girls.
Paulina (Markia Nicole Smith), a graduating senior, is the multi-year queen bee. The instantly contemptible Paulina wastes no time living up to the mean girl name. The play takes place in the school’s cafeteria, in which no detail is too small for savant scenic designer Ryan Howell. He includes Kodak puzzles in cubbies and a hand-drawn sign with colorful germ cartoons scattering under lettering that reads “Let’s keep OUR CAFETERIA clean + germ free!”
Paulina opens the play by calling out fellow classmate Nana (Atiauna Grant) for eating like a cow and cuttingly asks if Nana wants to be “fat, fat or popular?” Such bifurcated shaming leaves little room for question. While the other three girls appear to be mimics enchanted with Paulina, the trio instantly relax and complain about her when Paulina goes to retrieve an apple for Nana. Paulina is both despicable and transparent. She’s rife with insecurities that fuel her vitriol, but understanding her doesn’t make her any more pleasant. Smith finds the razor’s edge in her performance under the stellar direction of Shariffa Ali.
When light-skinned newcomer Ericka (Aidaa Peerzada) arrives on campus, the politics of colorism emerge with the coterminous arrival of beauty pageant headhunter Eloise (Melessie Clark), former Miss Ghana 1966. Eloise instantly singles out Ericka as a perfect Miss Ghana candidate based on her skin tone alone. Paulina’s disciples also immediately align with the kind and light-skinned Ericka who’s also the only one of her classmates with naturally straight hair, sparking her classmates to warble, “Wow! You are so lucky.” Thanks to dialect coach Nancy McNulty, every cast member is unfailingly on point with their accented English.
The promotion-seeking Eloise immediately brushes aside Headmistress Francis’ (Shinnerrie Jackson) recommendation for the dark-skinned Paulina in favor of Ericka. Eloise blatantly states she’s “looking for girls on the other end of the African skin spectrum.” Eloise is lighter-skinned herself, and she knows what plays on the international stage. While she comes across as heartless and conniving, she also knows she can’t overthrow the politics of color, nor is she interested in that, so she plays the game to her favor.
In anticipation of Eloise’s visit to assess the girls, the color politics of pageantry are explored. The girls had expressed indignity over a white former Miss Namibia. In this pre-apartheid world, when Miss South Africa is a top 10 semi-finalist for the Miss Global Universe pageant, it’s an eye roll given that she’s white – the allure of Africa with the safety of whiteness. Yet, the play thoughtfully peels back the layers of institutionalized segregation within black culture. In her most vulnerable moment, Paulina admits to Ericka she was one of eight children and the darkest in her family, so her mother gave her bleaching cream over food. Smith executes these lines with a pain born of parental rejection. It’s the root of her cruelty towards others, and Paulina states it plainly, “The world has already decided you are better than me,” a world that started with her own mother.
The only minor weaknesses belong to the writing, not the production. When the headmistress reprimands Paulina and Ericka for their behavior during the beauty pageant audition, she reminds them “what I’ve done for you girls.” Given Ericka has only attended the school for one day at this point, any sense of sacrifice would be hypothetical, not witnessed.
Also, the play stops more than it concludes, which was evident in the audience’s collective uncertainty on whether to clap when the lights went down. That being said, when it was clear it was the end, the eruption of applause was rightly explosive. It may be tempting to relegate Bioh’s play to the confines of 1980’s problems and high school drama. However, the fact Black Lives Matter is an activist movement today, and teenagers are committing suicide in record numbers due to bullying reminds us the injustices we see unfold on the stage are just as salient today as they were 30 years ago.
The Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production of “School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play” plays through December 8th at the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.