There’s Mean Girls fever in the air. Yes, Tina Fey’s Broadway-bound musical adaptation is finally having its world premiere in Washington, D.C., but there’s another, very different version of the Mean Girls narrative already playing Off-Broadway set at an all-girls boarding school. In Ghana. In the ‘80s.
This is the premise of Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls, or The African Mean Girls Play, now in previews at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in a production from MCC directed by Tony winner Rebecca Taichman. In this version, the reigning Queen Bee is Paulina Sarpong, and she has her sights on becoming Miss Ghana. Paulina has the pageant in the bag—until a talented and beautiful new student named Ericka joins the school and shakes up the ranks.
Though the setting of Bioh’s play is very specific, School Girls explores some of the universal similarities faced by teenage girls across the globe—questions like: what does beauty look like, what does body acceptance mean, and how does it feel to be respected and to fit in?
“It’s talking about self-loathing and how beauty is perceived in a culture,” explains Taichman, who was sent the script by Bioh’s agent about a year ago and instantly wanted to work on it. “The play looks at how alienating and strange perceptions of beauty can be,” she says. “I certainly grew up with my own very different, [but similar] experience of it.”
“It’s universal,” agrees MaameYaa Boafo, who plays Paulina in the Off-Broadway production. “Whether you’re a teenager in Africa in the ‘80s or you are an adult now, living in the States—the issues that Jocelyn targets and attacks in this play are very pertinent. They’re real things that we’re dealing with right now.”
One of those things is the issue of colorism. Rooted in racism, colorism is a form of discrimination in which people are treated or evaluated differently based on their shade of “blackness” or color. It’s a prejudice faced by countless women of color here in the U.S. and around the world.
Bioh, whose parents are from Ghana and who went to boarding school in Pennsylvania, says she was inspired by her own upbringing as well as the 2011 real-life Miss Ghana pageant. In the event, a fair-skinned contestant was crowned the winner despite allegedly lying about her Ghanaian heritage.
“I was fascinated by this idea that empirical standards of beauty in Western society would somehow influence an African society,” explains Bioh. “And we’re still dealing with it today.”
With School Girls, Bioh—known for her performances in shows like In the Blood, Everybody, and Octoroon—is making her anticipated professional playwriting debut. Though she has garnered a reputation as an actor to watch, her writing has also earned attention. Bioh’s 2015 play Nollywood Dreams was on the 2015 Kilroys List and her 2011 work African Americans was a finalist for the 2011 Ruby Prize.
So what can audiences anticipate from her first professional Off-Broadway production? “It’s very, very funny and profound,” says Taichman. “Hilarious,” agrees Boafo, “but very real. You’re laughing and crying at the same time.” Also expect a lot of ‘80s nostalgia—in the music, costumes, and pop culture references.
It may be different from North Shore High School—but for all the right reasons.
For tickets and information to School Girls, or The African Mean Girls Play playing now through December 10, click here.
Flip through photos of the cast and creative team meeting the press:
Cast and Creative Team of School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play Meet the Press
The cast is made up of Zainab Jah (Eclipsed), Nabiiyah Be (Hadestown), MaameYaa Boafo (Untamed), Paige Gilbert (Street Children), Nike Kadri (The Death of the Last Black Man…), Abena Mensah-Bonsu (Ellis Island’s Ragtime), Mirirai Sithole (The Death of the Last Black Man), and Lortel Award nominee Myra Lucretia Taylor (Familiar).