By Sanai Rashid
After three years since Beacon’s theater department’s last play production, last Thursday, B’DAT premiered a new fall play, School Girls; Or The African Mean Girls Play, written by Jocelyn Bioh.
As an attendant of the three o’clock Friday production, a time slot known to draw Beacon students eager to see their friends perform and Beacon teachers excited to indulge in the creative side of their students, anyone who walked into Blackbox that afternoon could feel the excitement wafting in the air.
However, in the weeks leading up to production, much of the excitement around the play was overshadowed by many students’ anxiety and skepticism about how B’DAT would tackle such a heavy, triggering work of theater.
Students in Beacon’s Black Student Union, African Student Association, and Beacon Dance Company (where a majority of the dancers identify as African, Black/ African American) raised several concerns about whether or not director Jo Ann Cimato, a white woman, had conducted the proper research before producing the play.
School Girls centers around the story of six Ghanaian teenage girls who are all competing for the Miss Ghana Pageant. Several topics addressed in the play include eating disorders, abuse, self-harm, and –what many students found most concerning– issues of colorism in the play.
Colorism, discrimination against people with lighter skin tones, especially against women, is a deeply rooted issue in the African community. Stemming from slavery and the rampant racial hierarchies across the continent, darker skin tones are devalued so much that many African women use bleaching creams to lighten their skin tones. The play’s main character, Paulina, uses a bleaching cream to make her skin appear lighter for the pageant recruiter. Unfortunately, she uses so much bleaching cream that her face begins to bleed on stage, causing an uproar amongst the school girls.
Some Beacon students felt like Cimato, as a white woman, could not fully understand the severity of such issues and wondered if the actors in the production had received the proper education and awareness training about such issues before diving into the stories of their characters.
Senior, Zeinab Keita, a member of Beacon Dance Company, expressed such thoughts. “Actors need to understand the history of these topics in West African culture — I just wanted everyone to have context,” she states.
“Most importantly,” she adds, “I wanted everyone in the production to watch the original play and research the backstory of the playwright.”
In an age where representation in not just the actors on stage is important, but representation in the production team behind such works of theater is essential, it is important to consider how these identities work in tandem when creating such art.
In Beacon’s playbill of School Girls, on the page of the Director’s notes, Cimato writes, “On the very first day of auditions, I said to the actors: I know I’m a white teacher in Manhattan building a play about Black girls in Ghana and trusting the process is an understandable risk, but if you bring your experience to the table as a woman in your skin, and I’ll bring my knowledge of making plays and everything I know about mean girls (and the 1980s!) to meet you.” Cimato addresses the fact that as a white woman, there is a certain level of personal experience she can not bring to this production, still vowing to try and tell this story as best as she knows how. Working with Cimato was former Beacon alum, Hawa Jalloh, a student of Guinean descent, who coached some of the actors on their accents for the production.
At one point students of the previously mentioned Student Unions and Companies planned to hold a sit-in on the day of a School Girls performance. In response, Cimato had a trial run-through of the production a week before the show premiered exclusively for BSU, ASA, and BDC so they could offer her notes and suggestions to stay true to the authenticity of the African experience as it relates to this play.
“When watching [School Girls] on Broadway I literally cried because of how relatable the emotions the characters were feeling were,” Zeinab added. “These topics are something that need to be discussed in Africa and more so in white spaces to create that open dialogue for healing and change.”
Representation can only exist with thoughtful education on why such representation is essential in the first place. While there is more B’DAT could have done in preparing the actors in the history of colorism and other triggering issues the play presents, I believe the actors did the best they could in the space they were given to tell a story in its raw, authentic truth. We know the future to keep pushing forward for change and opening the floor for diverse voices before such productions are held in our school community.
With these thoughts in mind, I entered the show on Friday knowing that while there was much more that could have been done in the planning of this play, it was still an experience not to be taken for granted to see the stories of girls–girls who look like me–on the center stage.
Immediately the set of the production, a tidy lunchroom fashioned by mustard yellow walls and grassland backgrounds, drew the audience’s attention as we awaited the actors to adorn the stage. So far from the neon lockers of Beacon High School, the set was but one sign of the transformative ride this play was about to take us on.
The production begins with the infamous ring of a school bell, and six girls in white blouses and billowing yellow and pink floral skirts file into the cafeteria — the most important place on campus.
The entirety of School Girls unfolds in this cafeteria, the central stage of the Aburi Girls boarding school in Central Ghana. We soon learn that it is 1986, but if there is one thing in this world that remains the same no matter what decade you are in, it is the stinging nature of high school cliques.
As the girls unpack their lunch and engage in typical teenage banter about who’s dating who and strict teachers, one girl clearly flies above the others, queen bee of the colony, Paulina (Jemimah Nabugasha). The rest of the girls, Ama (Taina Stuart), Paulina’s studious best friend, Mercy (Kendra Burford) and Gifty (Brianna Rowe), the two witty sidekicks, and Nana (Teshanna Gayle), Paulina’s chosen dung of the group, praise Paulina in every word they utter, willing to lick the dirt off of her shoes if it means pleasing the most popular girl in school.
Yet, Paulina is cruel to her friends. She often teases Nana about her weight, belittles Mercy and Gifty for their immaturity, and reminds Ama that she would be nothing if it weren’t for her. So, though Paulina isn’t your typical mean girl with platinum blonde roots like Regina George or sticky fuchsia lips like Sharpay Evans, with her afro puff she can whip a backhanded comment just as fast, and make you question everything about yourself, while she floats above the rest.
When Paulina tells the girls that her aunt in America works at the country’s premiere high class restaurant — White Castle — they ooh and ah in glory, stars fixed in their eyes.
Clearly written for an American audience, Jocelyn Bioh milks laughs out of this production by using the school girls misguided but glamorous notions of America. At times these jokes feel cheap and distract from the heavier themes of the play, but perhaps such laughs serve as a conscious reminder of how little Americans recognize their privilege, unless it comes from the mouth of someone else.
“I am so jealous of your life Paulina,” Nana eventually sighs.
Paulina smiles. “I know. I’m so blessed,” she says.
It comes as no surprise that for the upcoming Miss Ghana beauty pageant, everyone, including Paulina, believes she will take the crown and represent the beauty of their nation.
But just when Paulina thinks the crown of Miss Ghana is already on her head, things take a turn for the worst: headmistress of Aburi (Amanda Acevedo) announces that a new American student will join them this year: Ericka (Olivia Ruiz).
As Ericka enters the stage, Paulina’s glow falls dull. Paulina’s squad immediately makes sights on the new girl and leaves their queen bee behind. At once they are transfixed by how Ericka is the beautiful antithesis of all their insecurities. With her long legs, kind demeanor, and smart attitude, Ericka is the new it girl of Aburi, and above all she has the lightest skin complexion of them all.
Ericka’s father even owns Ghana’s top coca factory, and like a melted chocolate bar the school girls seem to melt in admiration for her.
Soon, Ericka invites all of the girls to a makeover party where they can try all of the beauty supplies she brought from America. While Paulina sourly attests that she has other things to do, once Ericka mentions how she signed up for the Miss Ghana beauty pageant Paulina’s attention snaps back to her.
There is no way Paulina is letting the new girl rob all of her dreams, just like that.
At Erica’s makeover party, a hilarious scene unfolds, where the chemistry of this cast truly shines. There is a certain playfulness and unapologetic embrace of girlhood within these lines, which is so often ridiculed in the media as shallow and unimportant, especially since Black teenage girls rarely ever star as the main characters in their own plot lines. So, there is a certain joy exuded as the girls adorn themselves in makeup and prepare for the Miss Ghana pageant recruiter. At one point Ericka pretends to interview Mercy, and asks, “If you could either be fire or water, which would you be and why?” Revealing the ridiculousness of pageantry, Burford does a fantastic job in executing the childish nature of Mercy in this scene, stumbling as she answers, yet clearly deep in thought.
“I am a girl who has emotions and fire and water do not,” she says firmly, and as the roar of audience laughter grew louder, it became clear that Mercy’s answer was satisfactory to us all.
Once the recruiter, Ms. Eloise Amponsah (Skye Fisher), arrives at Aburi the next day, she maintains a foolishly poshdemeanor, letting the phrase I was Miss Ghana 1966, darling become a period to all of her sentences.
In previous scenes we learn that Ms. Amponsah will receive a large sum of money if the next Miss Ghana goes on to place in the national beauty pageant, so she will do whatever it takes to find that winning girl.
All of the schoolgirls announce that they have prepared a group song to perform for Ms. Amponsah. Singing Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” acapella style, each girl has a short solo in the song. Their comical auditions are over the top and perfectly encapsulate the desperation of many teenage girls — seldom do we get a moment to shine, but when there is an opportunity to do so, boy do we take it.
But of course, Ericka is the showstopper of the song, and actress, Ruiz, makes an adorable character of herself as she practically throws herself onto Ms. Amponsah, channeling all of Houston’s spirit to please the crowd.
Ms. Amponsah claps hysterically once Ericka concludes, exclaiming that Ericka would be perfect for the next Miss Ghana.
“NOOO!” Paulina cries, and in the fury of Nabugasha’s face the audience begins to feel pity for this mean girl. At once Paulina starts badmouthing Ericka, saying that she can’t even qualify for Miss Ghana because she wasn’t born in Ghana and her mother was a white woman!
All hell breaks loose as the other school girls believe that Paulina is lying just to get Ericka disqualified. They yell that Paulina’s mother is the “town whore,” how all her clothes from Chinatown are knock offs and that the White Castle her aunt works out is even worse than McDonalds. Even Ericka sheds her nice girl persona and ballistically calls Paulina, “A FUCKING BITCH!” Ruiz unleashed such pure fury in her scream that I heard members of the audience scream, “You go girl!”
Even the previously subdued Nana, a girl Gayle truly made a character out of with her bold side eye expressions and hilarious pantomimes, finally steps out against Paulina. She says the worst truth of them all — Paulina used bleaching cream to lighten her skin.
Almost on cue Paulina’s face starts bleeding, a side effect of all the bleaching cream she has used to impress the recruiter.
Shock falls across the faces of each school girl.
But Ms. Amponsah acts oblivious to Paulina’s pain, trotting around the stage with glee as she announces that she still has chosen Ericka for the next Miss Ghana.
Though Paulina has been in the wrong before, she was telling the truth about Ericka’s background. Ericka was not born in Ghana, and according to pageant rules she can not represent their country as Miss Ghana if she is not a natural born citizen. Ms. Amponsah knows this fact and simply does not care. She decides they will just have to lie about where Ericka was born so she can compete in the pageant.
Ms. Amponsah says it herself: “If I have to push every darkie out of the way, so be it!” Proving that the lengths Paulina did to destroy herself were unfortunately not that far misguided. Society has whispered for far too long that the closer your complexion is to white, the more beautiful you are, and Paulina internalized this message, without ever getting that praise society promised to give her.
The lights dim and the final scene of the play shows all of the schoolgirls crowded around a television. Tension is still high, and Paulina joins the crew, wrapped in a comically yet saddening large black scarf, resembling a mourner, mourning the stardom of her old self all before Ericka ruined it all.
We find out that Ms. Amponsah made Paulina write letters to each of the school girls, including Ericka, to apologize for her behavior and the “lies” she’s spread about them all. The audience feels an indescribable sadness when we recognize that though Paulina did nothing wrong (Ericka should not be competing for Miss Ghana) she is made to apologize for her actions. Ms. Amponsah employs such cruelty to this young girl, who just wanted to represent the strength of her country as Miss Ghana and give all the young Ghanaian girls with dark skin, blemishes, and all, a chance to see themselves represented on the big screen.
Ms. Amponsah, a woman who could have used her platform to look out for her girls like Paulina, does the exact opposite. She has internalized so much hate within herself that she will not dare give other dark skin girls a chance to soar since no one was ever there for her.
A break in this tension comes from an announcement on the tv, announcing the start of the Miss Global Universe pageant, Ericka as Miss Ghana will be competing against other contestants from countries across the world. We Beacon students hear familiar voices — both Ms. Diran and Mr. Trialogo voice the start of the pageant, and it cracks everyone up hearing their voices on stage.
The schoolgirls draw nearer to the screen, praying that Ericka will qualify as the announcer lists off the top ten contestants who will be moving on in the competition.
Miss France. Miss Italy. Miss Colombia. The announcer rattles off more names. Miss United States (of course, the girls groan). More names. As the list trails on, each girl watches the screen with such desire to see Ericka come on stage that it makes you want to cry. These girls who have never seen themselves on the big screen, hope that maybe today, today out of all days, someone from Ghana, one of their very own friends, can fulfill the promise of opportunity they were never afforded.
And the final contestant is … Miss Sweden.
The television fades to silence — Ericka didn’t make the cut. In every school girl’s mind, even solemn Paulina, you can see them think, “How silly it was to dream that one of us would ever be one of them.”
And the curtains close.
Schools Girls do not circumnavigate the harsher truths of our society. I wish the play explored the institutions that made girls like Paulina bleach their skin instead of blaming the individuals for falling to society’s expectations. Yet, it was essential to see the issues of colorism, racism, and misogyny in the context of the Aburi School Girls, who deserve so much more support than what the world has provided them with.
Theater has the potential to make a change, amplify underrepresented stories, and show others a different side of themselves, enlightening the experiences that make our world whole. School Girls is simply one play in a universe of stories with an important message, and such art can not be taken for granted. However, as we examine the beauty and flaws within the production of this play, it should only motivate us to create new stories to produce in Beacon and beyond that authentically represent different corners of our society.
*All photographs in this story are of credit to B’DAT