Review by Rosie Holmes
It’s a setting we are all familiar with in modern entertainment – a high school, made up of cliques and led by the chosen queen bee; labelled as popular but often not all that nice. In School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play, writer Jocelyn Bioh places the much-loved high school drama template in 1980s Ghana and in doing so produces a joyous and refreshing take on the theme. School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play will make you laugh just as hard as it will make you cry. The play highlights the universal similarities that unite teenage girls across the world while introducing an important discourse on race and self-identity.
Set within Aburi Girls Boarding School, the piece follows a group of six teenage girls as they fight to be chosen as candidates for the Miss Ghana 1986 pageant. Queen-Bee Paulina is the favourite to be chosen, but when new girl Ericka joins the school Paulina fears her chances of not only being chosen for the pageant, but her power within the group of girls also slipping away. The other girls admire Ericka’s lighter skin and slowly move from Paulina’s lunch table to Ericka’s as they share make-up and contraband chocolate. On the surface this is a chaotic and funny replica of high school culture, but Bioh uses this as a vehicle to examine deeper topics of race and the poisoning of the young girls’ minds. In Miss Ghana, both Ericka and Paulina see the answer to what they are searching for – not only to be seen but acceptance of who they are and what they look like.
Jocelyn Bioh’s writing is fast-paced and perfectly encapsulates the world of teenage girls as they worry about self-image. The wonderful cast further elevate the writing to do the powerful script justice. They perform with such natural chemistry that it really feels as though they have been a group of friends for years. Tara Tijani shines as Paulina, taking the audience on a journey as she begins completely unlikeable by delivering such cut-throat remarks to the other girls that the audience gasped, then slowly allowing us to see her vulnerability and the heart-breaking reasons behind her mean exterior.
Jadesola Odunjo is the timid Nana, who just wants to be liked for who she is and quietly fights against what is expected of her. Odunjo portrays Nana in such a way that you cannot help but root for her, so much so that the audience cheered as she found her voice, standing up to Paulina. Francessca Amewudah-Rivers and Bola Aeju as cousins Gifty and Mercy make a wonderful duo, with impeccable comic timing, even some of their facial expressions had me giggling in my seat. They perfectly capture the naivety and desperation to be liked that is found within young girls and make for the kind of characters that you would no doubt wish to be friends with.
Heather Agyepong plays the more reserved Ama, clearly at the end of the tether with her ‘best friend’ Paulina, Ama seems less bothered by her threats and provides a sense of calm and often wisdom within the friendship group. Anna Shaffer plays new girl Ericka Boafo and gives a touching performance as we see her try and identify with her Ghanaian identity. Alison A Addo is Headmistress Francis and although at first appears rather matronly and strict, she soon too reveals a more tender side to her character that sees her become a motherly figure to the girls within her care. Deborah Alli is a recruiter for the pageant and former Miss Ghana 1966, a sort of Dynasty-esque villain who proves that mean girls exist well beyond the walls of high school and in a persistent cycle she searches for “girls who fall on the other end of the African skin spectrum,” of the pageant. In a recurring theme, Alli’s performance also reveals the motives behind her meanness which boil down to self-loathing, insecurity and race.
Set design by Paul Willis sees the action set against the backdrop of the Aburi mountains as the audience are transported to the hot sun of Ghana. He cleverly uses lunch tables as set pieces, a common symbol within high school stories, to show where one fits within the social hierarchy. Costume design is equally as effective. Whilst most of the action sees the girls dressed in traditional Ghanaian school uniforms, one scene in which the girls audition for the pageant features the most wonderful display of 1980s outfits, I can’t help but feel it must have been a dream for costume designer Kinnetia Isidore to design this set of looks, with more shoulder pads, taffeta and sequins than I have ever seen. The costumes added to the absolute hilarity but equal heartbreak of the show as we see the girls both perform and cry in their ridiculous ensembles.
School Girls is a scathing criticism of the poisoning western culture can have on teenage girls, especially those who are black. Within the school, western restaurants and brands the girls only hear about from their distant relatives in America are revered, and the light skin of those who live there idealised. While the show is packed with witty lines, Bioh’s writing will break your heart as the hugely likeable group of girls sacrifice themselves for a western ideal of beauty that refuses to embrace or acknowledge them.
To reference the hugely popular high school drama Mean Girls, from which this play takes part of its name, is a clever choice. In fact the very title of the play sums up exactly what this piece is about. Yes, there are many similarities with western culture; a teenage desire to fit in, self-loathing and trying to find yourself in the world, but this is not simply only what the play is. Whilst these girls share all these universal similarities with teenage girls across the world, they do also face one glaring difference; a desperation to be seen in a world that idealises fairer skin.
School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play is a refreshing look at teenage girlhood within which there is both sorrow and joy. It’s a fast-paced look at racism and self-image that emphasises some uncomfortable truths about our society. School Girls shares an important story that witty writing and an exceptional cast ensure audiences will not forget. My only criticism of this show is that it was over too soon, and I only hope as many people as possible are able to see this wonderful piece of theatre.
School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play plays at Lyric Hammersmith until 15th July 2023, tickets are available here- School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play - Lyric Hammersmith
Photos by Manuel Harlan