The subtitle of Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls is The African Mean Girls Play. In some ways, it’s a pretty fair comparison. This is a sharp and funny work about a group of girls at an elite Ghanian boarding school. While each prepares for a performance that could make them eligible for the 1986 Miss Global Universe pageant—the name, of course, is similar to Donald Trump’s former enterprise—Paulina (MaameYaa Boafo) bullies her peers into submission and sycophancy. “I’m so jealous of your life,” coos Nana (Abena Mensah-Bonsu) after hearing Paulina will be wearing Calvin Klein. “I know,” she replies, delivering her lines as if they were rehearsed for an interviewer, “I’m so blessed.” But Nana’s subservience doesn’t protect her: Paulina uses her weight to cudgel her self-esteem, asking if Nana wants to be “fat-fat” or “fit and popular,” then eventually insisting that she drop twenty pounds or find a new table in the cafeteria. These volatile circumstances are only exacerbated when the new girl, the biracial, American-born Ericka (Nabiyah Be), arrives just in time to audition.
Still, School Girls is not just the “African” Mean Girls: granted, Ms. Bioh has flawlessly captured the rhythms and speech patterns of anxiety-ridden teens, with their razor-sharp lines of social demarcation and their endless reserve of passive aggression. But this is also a play whose characters do not fit the cardboard-cutout roles of traditional teen comedies. Sure, Paulina is an insufferable tormentor, but she is also tormented herself, surreptitiously applying skin-whitening cream that leaves her burned, bleeding, and hospitalized. And Ericka, our ostensible hero, has a tendency to enable Paulina, egging her on when deescalation would save everyone quite a bit of trouble. School Girls, then, doesn’t offer the easy victories of the goodies and the cathartic failures of the baddies that tend to accompany these sorts of narratives. Instead, the audience is implicated in the action: as Americans who set the tone for global popular culture, the music we listen to, the magazines we buy, even the products we use all contribute to Paulina’s sense of devaluation—a sense, I might add, that is consistently confirmed by the world in which she lives.
It is a mark of Ms. Bioh’s generosity, both to her characters and to her actors, that nearly everyone here shines: the chorus of nervous, childish talk is wonderfully executed, whether in Ms. Boafo’s ability to communicate entire relationships with one dismissive or ingratiating gesture, or in Mirirai Sithole’s and Paige Gilbert’s earnestness: when Paulina asks Nana for a decision—fat-fat or fit—both chirp in gleeful unison, “Yeah, choose your choice!” And Zainab Jah, as Eloise, the Miss Ghana recruiter, is phenomenal. Eloise is a former contest winner whose ambition and ruthlessness provide viewers with an older variation of Paulina; her voice, raspy, almost hoarse, suggests a life of screaming over others to be heard. Ms. Jah brings a meticulous reserve to Eloise’s movements, endowing each nod or shift in posture with an incredible amount of power. A celebrity at home and a nobody abroad, she is motivated to put Ghana on the map but forced to prefer Ericka for her lighter skin—even though she is dark-skinned herself. In this character, and in her heartbreaking rendering, we have School Girls in a nutshell: self-mutilation comes in many forms, sometimes in whitening cream but perhaps more often in favoring the girl who doesn’t use it.