Welcome Back to the African ‘Mean Girls’
Jocelyn Bioh’s ‘School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play’ is a witty and moving take on ‘Mean Girls,’ while ‘Plot Points in Our Sexual Development’ examines love and identity.
This is not the first time the MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel on New York City’s Christopher Street has taken us to the Aburi Girls Boarding School, located in the Aburi Mountains in central Ghana.
Jocelyn Bioh’s punchy, crisp and sly (and award-winning) School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play, was last here in late 2017 and now its all-female cast have returned (after a run in Los Angeles).
Some elements of the story, as the title makes clear, will already be familiar to those familiar with the Mean Girls movie and Broadway musical, and some have been subverted—most particularly the setting, which sets the action in 1986 in the very continent where white heroine Cady in the movie is returning from.
The fact she has been to Africa marks her out as “different” to Regina George and co; and Africa is presented as a land of unimaginable exoticism.
In the Africa-set play, directed on a small stage with brio and style by Tony winner Rebecca Taichman, Bioh makes Africa home and America the other—even if the girls are obsessed with all things in American pop culture, including Bobby Brown and “Calvin Klean.” Dede M. Ayite's costumes—big dresses, bigger shoulders, ruches everywhere—are era-perfect.
Here the “Cady” is Ericka Baofo (Joanna A. Jones), a pale-skinned biracial girl, who is returning to Africa from America.
Paulina Sarpong (Maameyaa Boafo, excellent), is the Regina of the school and we first meet her and her acolytes in the school cafeteria. Ama (Latoya Edwards), Nana (Abena Mensah-Bonsu), Gifty (Paige Gilbert), and Mercy (Mirirai Sithole) seem like any group of friends were it not for the flashes of Paulina’s fierce control. They make for an exquisite ensemble.
The threat to Paulina's reign comes from Ericka, and particularly her participation in a contest to find a contestant from the school for the Miss Ghana contest, with its own prejudiced judge, Eloise (Zenzi Williams), a former winner herself, who is ruthless in her search for the “right girl” despite the suspicions of the girls’ wise headmistress (Myra Lucretia Taylor).
This leads to the play’s most hilarious moment, when the girls sing, A cappella, Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All”—much to Paulina’s horror, won by Ericka.
The laughs are combined with some tougher drama. The play also sees Paulina’s vicious bullying of Nana, using her food issues against her to blackmail her into doing her dirty work. Ama’s family life is similarly used against her. Paulina is her own walking “burn book,” and she hopes to ruin Ericka’s chances of beauty contest success, and keep control of her social set.
But there is pain beneath Paulina’s machinations. The color of her skin is too dark to be seen as “beautiful,” and this causes her to harm herself in the quest to make her skin lighter. Race, ideals of beauty, and personal identity are at the heart of School Girls—and they are uncompromisingly addressed by Bioh and the cast.
The play is only 75 minutes long, and perhaps on the Lortel stage that makes sense. But it is so smart, quick and intelligent this critic kept wishing it was longer. Maybe if it grows to a bigger stage, it just might.
In Miranda Rose Hall’s Plot Points in Our Sexual Development, we meet two other young people confronting issues of identity: who they are, and how the world sees them.
At first, on a bare stage that appears as a room with a door, two young people, Theo (Jax Jackson) and Cecily (Marianne Rendón), sit in two separate chairs and tell us stories of sexual adventure and misadventure from their past. The two seem separate: Cecily appears to be a young lesbian, and Theo, a trans man.
Some of the stories, both told in separate spotlights, are funny, some are not. Theo recalls one incident with a boy, which ended up with Theo locked in a closet. Theo rolls his eyes at us at that dovetailing real and metaphorical payoff.
But it turns out that Theo and Cecily are not separate; they are together in a relationship and they were telling these stories to help resolve a relationship in freefall. They both love each other, but Cecily isn’t sure she wants a penetrative sexual relationship with a man; and Theo wants to be able to use, and use with pride, a silicon penis when having sex.
Plot Points, directed by Margot Bordelon, is only 55 minutes long, and a fascinating examination of a relationship between two people, so used to having their sexual and gender identities marginalized and not understood. Theo and Cecily both expect better of one another, but they also have very specific worries and boundaries themselves.
It's an upsetting discussion and sometimes a too-imprecise one. You wish the characters wouldn't dance around what they were being asked or wanted to say. The play is best when it and they talk in specifics, not wishy-washy generalizations. Both Jackson and Rendón are engaging performers and evocative storytellers.
This critic saw it on Sunday, the day the news broke that the Trump administration was seeking to erase “transgender” as a recognized identity. To watch a trans character and actor seek to explain their existence and desires on this particular day was raw to watch, and perhaps even more so to perform.
The play asks if each partner can accommodate the other, despite their divergent sexual wonts; and what happens when that strange devil we call love intersects with fiercely held identity and desire. The answers are not easy or maybe even final, but the play shows there is a respectful way to have the discussion.