We’ve probably all been on the receiving end of a relentless “mean girl” at one point in our lives- whether that’s in the playground or the workplace. We might have even had the urge to fight back, or at times decided it’s best to bite our tongues. Jocelyn Bioh’s hit play, School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play confronts this notion head-on as meanness rears its ugly head from the opening scenes.
Set in 1986 at the prestigious Aburi Girls Boarding School in Ghana, we meet Queen Bee Paulina (Tara Tijani), who runs tings. Like the rest of her friends, Gifty, Mercy, Nana and Ama - Paulina is eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Miss Ghana recruiter. As an overbearing alpha, she’s the clear frontrunner to be picked to represent her country at the international pageant competition… until a spanner is thrown in the works. The arrival of Ericka (Anna Shaffer) - a new transfer who has Ghanaian heritage and is pretty, likeable and light-skinned, decides she too wants to take part.
From the opening scene, it’s no surprise the play’s run at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre has been extended and why it’s been a hit since it first graced the off-broadway stages of America in 2017. It’s inspired by a true story. The set design and vibrant costumes have an authentic feel and in 80 minutes we are transported 3000 miles away from hectic London to the seemingly halcyon Ghanaian mountainside.
Director, Monique Touko, travelled to the real Aburi Boarding School ahead of the show’s run, and a sense of this truthfulness transcends on the stage. We see childhood joy and innocence - those comforting feelings of nostalgia and black joy as the characters dance, sing and laugh with their friends. But those horrible moments of adolescence, such as the price of standing out when it pays to fit in during your formative years, and unrelenting beauty standards ripple through the narrative.
Nana (Jadesola Odunjo) is Paulina’s number one target to manipulate, belittle and berate. The frequent digs about her weight and her worth chime true to the cruel reality of that one person who takes absolute delight in telling you you’ve gained weight. Gifty (Francesca Amewudah-Rivers), Mercy (Bola Akeju) and Ama (Heather Agyepong) are also on the receiving end of Paulina’s malice which is exacerbated by jealousy at Ericka’s arrival and the new girl’s ability to get along with most. The play’s dialogue has you belly laughing one moment and feeling tearful the next. You find yourself rooting for one character and moments later wanting to tell them about themselves. The African emphasis on how education is an important tool in the play chimes with the words we’ve heard so often from our parents and ancestors. I don’t think I’ve ever related to a narrative more.
What undeniably stands out is the cast’s chemistry and the universal teenage stresses of wanting to thrive in school, look the part, and fit in. Bola Akeju as Mercy will have you in stitches with her comical lines. Headmistress Francis (Alison A Addo) bumping heads with Eloise Amponsah (Deborah Alli), pageant recruiter and Miss Ghana 1966, reminds you that mean girl-ness isn’t always left in the playground and can infiltrate your life as an adult too. And Paulina going head-to-head with Ericka highlights just how far jealousy can push you. Bioh’s characters are multi-faceted and mean, but they don’t feel like caricatures - which can so often be the case with the portrayal of African characters. It’s refreshing and somewhat upsetting in the same breath because, at some point, we’ve all had people similar to the girls on stage try to bring us down. These girls are complex and their cruelty seems to stem from insecurities, a global theme that everyone can relate to.
The really dark depths of how far envy can push you are highlighted ahead of the pageant tryouts when Paulina decides to slather skin-lightening cream on her beautiful dark skin. Paulina will do anything to one-up Ericka who is the front-runner in the Miss Ghana race because of her considerably lighter complexion. It’s revealed that Paulina’s use of the cream isn’t a one-off and the schoolgirl has used it multiple times before. Other dark secrets about the girls are unearthed too and emotions reach boiling point very quickly.
With tunes from Whitney Houston and a catastrophic confrontation, Bioh’s School Girls, or the African Mean Girls Play, challenges society’s beauty standards for women and young girls and the incorrect notion that paler skin defines beauty.
With a wonderful cast and stellar stage debut from Jadesola Odunjo, it’s a summer must-see.
School Girls; Or The African Mean Girls Play ends 22nd July. Book here