‘Mean Girls’ Gets a Refreshing African Makeover
In ‘School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play,’ two surprising women writers getting laughs from racism, sexism, and Jane Austen.
The off-Broadway play, Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play, opens on a scene we’ve witnessed often in movies and TV and real-life—girls in a high school cafeteria whoop it up while fawning over the mean girl who always gets her way.
In this case, queen bee Paulina (played by the talented Maameyaa Boafo) controls the group and expects that she is going to be selected for the Miss Ghana pageant.
And that’s the one twist on this familiar scenario, and it’s there in the subtitle of the play. Instead of being blond like Rachel McAdams’ Regina George in the 2004 Mean Girls movie, which was written by Tina Fey, Paulina is a dark-skinned girl at a boarding school in central Ghana.
The specifics are different, but the show has some of the same DNA as the wildly popular film, which is coming to Broadway this spring as a musical. The African story has the same high spirits and strong ensemble acting, but the girls have slightly kinder hearts and less vapid minds.
Paulina’s faux sophistication includes knowing all about America—the high-class restaurant White Castle (“a castle with food”), the trendy boutique Walmart, and “Calvin Klean” dresses.
The wrench in this well-set machine comes in the form of a new transfer student, Ericka (an appealing Nabiyah Be; Ericka’s 2004 movie equivalent is, of course, Lindsay Lohan’s Cady), who has a rich father, grew up in the United States, and is lighter-skinned than the others.
You won’t be surprised to know that Ericka usurps Paulina both in the hearts of the girls and as the most likely contestant for Miss Ghana. But the familiarity of the story actually works in its favor because Bioh’s writing is fast-paced and funny, and she has enough barbs to keep the short play zinging along.
She also has some serious points to make about internalized racism. Once Ericka arrives, Paulina becomes more desperate to keep her popularity. Despite being the queen bee, she is insecure about her own poor background and admits that her mother gave her bleaching cream instead of food.
At school, she secretly continued to apply the cheap cream and was rushed to the hospital several times with bloody and blistered skin. As her best friend finally screams, “The truth is you hate yourself so much, you would do anything to change!”
The sadness at the heart of a bully isn’t a surprise, but it has some extra poignancy here. The girls have African pride—but also accept being light-skinned as the highest blessing. Ericka supposedly has her own cross to bear in that her father rejected her. But she seems way too light-hearted and friendly for that anguish to ring true.
When the girls seem too focused on the pageant and their dresses, the headmistress (a string Myra Lucretia Taylor) reminds them what is really important. “Education is the only gift that no one can take away,” the girls all say in unison, a mantra they’ve obviously heard before.
The play dismisses it almost as a joke. But it would be nice if both in Africa and America, the girls—mean and otherwise—knew that it was was true.
At the end of the play, the girls do discover that being pretty doesn’t necessarily make you a winner. But the conclusion doesn’t add up to much, and as the friend who came with me said, “It feels like this should be part of something bigger.”
Bioh is talented and witty and this play marks her professional playwriting debut. Maybe in her next effort, she will find the bigger story.
If you are a Jane Austen purist, you might want to stay away from the new adaptation of Pride and Prejudice by Kate Hamill that just opened at Primary Stages in New York. No zombies appear on stage, but there is disco music, irreverence, and men playing some of the women’s roles.
The night I went, one woman walked out early, possibly missing Colin Firth (Mr. Darcy in the 1995 BBC production). The rest of the audience stayed and happily roared with laughter.
Hamill, who previously adapted Sense and Sensibility to great acclaim, keeps every main plot element from the book intact though she does have four Bennet sisters rather than five. (Kitty is not missed—her cough is given to Mary.)
But she boils Austen’s theme down to the simple idea that marriage is a game.
“There are rules, strategies, wins, losses—and it is, theoretically, done for pleasure,” Lizzy (played by Hamill) explains to her youngest sister Lydia.
And so let the games begin. Or as Mrs. Bennet calls out to her husband at one point in her best Sherlock Holmes, “Mr. Bennet, wake up! The game is afoot!”
The play opens with the whole cast onstage ringing bells and singing the pop song “The Game of Love” (“the purpose of a man is to love a woman and the purpose of a woman is to love a man...”). They stay on stage throughout all the action, and someone rings a bells whenever two characters start to fall in love.
This Monty Python meets Jane Austen staging works, in part, because Austen is familiar enough to be ripe for parody. The characters in the novel are drawn in broad strokes, and Hamill makes them even broader. Her Lizzy isn’t just put off by Mr. Darcy at the beginning—she doesn’t want to get married at all.
“How many times must I tell you, tell everyone, that I shall never marry!” she says to her father. In his best John Donne, he tells her to ask not for whom the bell tolls...
In this production, needless to say, a bell then rings.
The lack of subtlety fits with Lizzy’s explanation when Lydia asks how you know when you’ve found the right match.
“A lightning bolt shoots down from the sky and fries you like an egg!” Lizzy says, dropping flat on the stage.
Hamill adds to the farce with her casually cross-dressing actors, who change in full view.
Actor Chris Thorn plays Mr. Bennet and tosses on a dress to portray Charlotte Lucas, and the completely delightful Mark Bedard plays two different male suitors (Mr. Collins and Mr. Wickham) as well as the preening Ms. Bingley, described in Hamill’s notes as “the most perfect-looking woman in the whole play.”
Actor John Tufts also lights up the stage with both of his characters—tossing his black hair back to be the cheerful Mr. Bingley, and then dragging it over his face (and adding a skirt) to be Lizzy’s dark and sulky sister Mary.
Hamill does herself no favors, though, by making Lizzy and Jane (a graceful Amelia Pedlow) excessively shrill and shrieky in the second act. She should trust her own clever script to deliver the farce without a need to turn up the volume.
Mr. Darcy (played by Jason O’Connell) forgives her—which is a good thing since O’Connell and Hamill are real-life partners who live together in Queens. When they get together at the end of the play, Lizzy marvels, “to know ourselves so little, to reverse ourselves so entirely! Do you want us to be the laughingstock of the world?”
Mr. Darcy has an answer.
“Let them laugh.”
And in this production, that’s enough.
School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play is at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in New York City through Dec. 23. Pride and Prejudice has been extended at the Cherry Lane Theatre, NYC, through Jan. 6, 2018.