Sit up; Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play might be the best play you’ll see in your summer holidays. Queen bee Paulina seems a shoe-in for the Miss Ghana 1986 pageant, having bullied the competition into submission. But transcending the mere bitchery of its American counterpart—and don’t worry, there’s plenty of it!—School Girls celebrates solidarity between women and how the pageant might provide the money to save a struggling school.
There are no backing dancers in this formidable group. Bola Akeju (as Mercy) never misses a beat, her comic timing formidable. A subtle facial expression sends the audience into frenzy. When asked if she would be fire or water, a typically inane beauty contest question, she responds plainly: “I am a human being”. Talent abounds in cast and crew, from the multidisciplinary artist Heather Agyepong, to its executive producer, Idris Elba.
The arrival of Ericka, a “White African” from Ohio whose absent father owns the local cocoa factory, brings up questions about what it means to be Black, White, or neither. She is perfectly pitched for the play’s context, a source of enlightenment, exposing the truth of Paulina’s “trendy American boutiques”: Primark, Walmart, and “Calvin Clean”. These women worship Ericka—”It’s like you were sent from heaven!”—but the praise comes perfectly delivered, with a strong sense of irony.
School Girls lightly looks at how its Black protagonists internalise, perpetuate, and appropriate Western European standards for their own ends, and how this manifests in the everyday. The pageant “recruiter”—a former Miss Ghana too—euphemises Ericka’s whiteness as a “universal look”, and Paulina continues to harm herself with bleaching cream. The slurs hurled are sore, and hit harsher than swear words. There’s talk of women being “traded in” by families facing poverty, and finding “diamonds in the rough”, colonial legacies quietly lingering in language. Another character, learning how to read, relishes her copy of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach.
It’s no surprise that it’s a story where no one wins, and one which ends in blackout. But there are huge triumphs along the way. Each character is an individual, respected with realistic, developed backstories and stage time. When “fat” Nana (Jadesola Odunjo) slowly turns back around to face her bully, the audience roars before she even opens her mouth. This is not a play to be watched passively, but a collective experience, a contemporary production that speaks to the tradition of theatre, and what theatre should be.
It is also a joyous celebration, each scene change a chance to sing, dance, and makeover. To the pageant, they come clad in variations of pink—and yes, I did watch it on a Wednesday. Still, it’s hard to emphasise just how much better than the American Mean Girls this play is—a proper education in theatre.
School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play runs at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre until 22 July 2023.
Words by Jelena Sofronijevic
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