You might well wonder, at first glance, why you should go out of your way to see a small-scale comedy about six high school girls in a Ghana mountain town, circa 1986? And—even if it turns out to be good—how interesting can it possibly be? If you’re at all interested in laughing uproariously, though, get thee to the Lortel.
Because School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play is uproarious. Affecting, human, and sympathetic, too; but this is the funniest time you’ve spent in high school since those History Boys came to town.
The author is Jocelyn Bioh, better known as an actor in such plays as An Octoroon, In the Blood, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. (I especially recall her as the wry cook in Men on Boats.) It turns out that she is quite a playwright. The locale, apparently, is inspired by her mother’s high school in Ghana.
Are there Mean Girls in Ghana? Yes, it appears. Bioh gives us only one mean girl, actually, but she is more than enough to terrorize the rest. Pauline (MaameYaa Boafo) hides her fatherless village upbringing behind a veritable shield of cruelty and a secret stash of skin bleaching cream. When Ms. Boafo scoffs at the others by tossing her shoulders, spectators in the front row could get whiplash.
The world—or at least the world of the Aburi School—is her oyster until the entrance of a newcomer, a transplant from Ohio named Ericka (Joanna A. Jones). Who is the opposite of this mean girl, albeit with an inner strength which makes her more than a match. Pauline’s acolytes—most charmingly played by Latoya Edwards, Paige Gilbert, and Mirirai Sithole—instantly and understandably move over to the new girl in town, causing the mean girl to bully the outcast Nana (Abena Mensah-Bonsu) into actions that create a crisis. Overseeing them all is headmistress Francis (Myra Lucretia Taylor) and returning beauty queen Eloise (Zenzi Williams), who was apparently the resident mean girl when Francis and Eloise were Aburi students 20 years earlier.
The play is brightened by a uniformly talented cast. Boafo and Jones make a strong mismatch. (Jones shines in a brief singing opportunity—not surprisingly, considering that she is a former Maria Reynolds from the Broadway Hamilton.) Taylor is the rock that holds the play together; and the four other schoolgirls exude individual character despite relatively smaller roles. Matching the cast and the playwright is director Rebecca Taichman, who took a 2017 Tony for her Broadway debut with Indecent. School Girls and Indecent, most obviously, call for radically different directing styles. Taichman does as good a job with this one as she did with that one.
School Girls is a valedictory statement from MCC Theater, which is hereby ending its longterm residency at the Lortel and moving uptown to newly constructed digs on Tenth Avenue at West 52nd. Bioh’s play—which was first produced during MCC’s 2017-18 season—returns due to popular demand. Anyone who laughed through it last November is likely to urge friends to catch the play before it closes Thanksgiving weekend, and perhaps join them on their visit. Because yes, School Girls is a joy to see. Mean Girls, up at the August Wilson, has songs, dances and Tina Fey’s far-better-than-average libretto (as well as a Hollywood pedigree which draws—and satisfies—eager crowds). This African Mean Girls Play, though, has more laughs, more heart, and talent spilling across the stage.
School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play opened Oct. 22, 2018, at the Lortel Theatre and runs through December 9. Tickets and information: mcctheater.org