At first glance, the title of Jocelyn Bioh's gentle and warm School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play says it all. A lot of Mean Girls, some Heathers, maybe a bit of Legally Blonde. Then it gets interesting at The Ensemble Theatre.
Set in an all-girls boarding school in eastern Ghana, the senior class is ruled by Paulina (a riveting Chiemeri Osemele) who keeps her adoring coterie in thrall by tales of her soccer-star boyfriend, rich relatives who live in America, and her wardrobe. She is the alpha female, using intimidation, threats, and downright bitchery to stay on top. While she is fawned over by her clique, she is equally loathed by them for her reign of terror. “Do you want to be a fat cow?” she wickedly accosts shy chubby Nana (Sierra Glover), knocking a roll out of her hand. “I'm hungry,” Nana cries. Don't you want to be glamorous and thin? Don't you want to look like me? Osemele is striking looking, panther-sleek, and curved just so.
More than anything, what Paulina really wants is to be Miss Ghana. It's her birthright. Everyone assumes she's a shoo-in, even Headmistress Francis (Alice M. Gatling) who wears kente cloth and elaborate weave. It's no stretch; you can easily imagine Osemele as Miss Ghana. Eloise Amponsah (Detria Ward, in full sardonic mode), a representative from the pageant, former student, and Miss Ghana 1966 – as she tells everybody numerous times – arrives in flashy rhinestones to pick a contestant from the prestigious school. Francis and Eloise have history. They both attended the school, and we know exactly who the mean girl was back then.
But Paulina's plans hit an epic roadblock when new student Ericka (Daria Savannah) shows up. Of mixed race, she has lived in Ohio for years but wants to live in Ghana with her black father who owns a cocoa plantation. She has pedigree, knows in detail all the American pop culture that the girls screech and dream about, can sing like a Supreme, and can pass for white. Paulina has met her match. Eloise gravitates to her because of the lucrative opportunities she predicts will come to her, Ericka, and the school. A light-skinned girl from Ghana is the perfect candidate. Battle lines are drawn.
What slowly trickles through Bioh's put-downs, machinations, and smart-ass banter, is a sly current – subtly electric – that says none of these girls are happy who they are. While they assume White Castle is the epitome of fine dining or Walmart is the store of ultimate fashion – Paulina has said it is so – they've been consumed by a more invidious lie. For them, color is curse. The fairer wins the race. (The play's set in 1986.) Even girls in an elite prep school in east Africa are ensnared.
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Beautiful Paulina falls for the hard-sell, too. She bleaches her skin with caustic chemicals until her cheeks bleed. To make it out of Ghana you've got to be less black. “More universal and commercial,” is Eloise's pandering, less-offensive explanation. Only studious Ama (Judith Igwilo, in a well-modulated performance) is immune. She believes success and happiness come from hard work, good grades, and decency.
Bioh's sting of internalized racism comes at us in tiny barbs, but she wisely downplays the lecture, allowing the girls' camaraderie to soften the message. She's writing a comedy, basically, not a screed, and she makes her points with tenderness and warm observation. Lovingly drawn and acted (the astute hand of director Eileen J. Morris sees to that), the girls squeal over pop star Bobby Brown or munch anxiously on popcorn as they watch the ceremony on a battered television. (Chiamaka Ikwuezunma and Krystal Marie Uchem, as rambunctious best friends Mercy and Gifty, round out the talented cast.) When the girls finally ramp up the courage to confront Paulina, the audience erupts in cheers. She gets her comeuppance, but it, too, is flavored with compassion.
Bioh implies there's a method to their meanness. She gives us a “why” that is deeper than class, culture, economics. Her meaning is right there on the surface. It's as plain as your face.
School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play continues through October 13 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays at The Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. For information, call 713-520-0055 or visit ensemblehouston.com. $43-$50.