After she was cast as a cockroach in college—a role she politely declined—Jocelyn Bioh enrolled in her first playwriting class. She quickly realized she was a comedic writer, but kept hitting a barrier: the expectation that she, as a black woman and a daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, should be writing “poverty porn.” When Bioh tried to meet expectations, “It was very clear that my voice did not inherently live in some dark place,” she says.
So she continued acting in plays like Branden Jacob-Jenkins’ An Octoroon and Tony-winning The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. After her run in Curious Incident, Bioh “bet on herself” and focused on her writing career, promising her literary agent a finished play in six weeks. That play was School Girls.
The world premiere of School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play at MCC Theater in 2017, directed by Tony winner Rebecca Taichman, marked Bioh’s professional playwriting debut—and the first time in two decades MCC produced a play by a black playwright. Earning the 2018 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play, the run was so successful that the play returns for a second engagement beginning October 16. And yes, the subtitle is a nod to Tina Fey’s 2004 comedy Mean Girls.
But School Girls is not a literal African adaptation of Mean Girls. Moments of cafeteria banter and gossip may feel familiar, but themes of colorism and Western beauty standards are woven throughout, as the play’s central group of girls at a boarding school in Ghana prepare for the 1985 Miss Ghana pageant. “I do believe that comedy is a funny way of being serious,” Bioh says. “I am a dark-skinned woman, and growing up, I never compared myself to white people; I always felt inferior to lighter-skinned women [of color]. Putting [the experiences of colorism] out in such an explicit way was important to me.”
Bioh doesn’t necessarily write with a specific audience in mind. “There’s a real universality to what I’m talking about,” she says. That’s my hope for all of my writing—that people will continue to see themselves in [different] ways and that new perspective will influence their actions.”
Bioh feels like a shift is starting to take place, seeing more theatres commit to more diverse stories, rehearsal rooms, and audiences. In September, Los Angeles’ Center Theater Group presented School Girls simultaneously with the work of two other black female playwrights—MacArthur Genius recipient Dominique Morisseau and Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage—hopefully becoming a new normal for theatres across the country. “Diversity is not trendy. It’s our reality.”