Who is the meanest of them all? That's one of the questions that pervades our perceptions of Jocelyn Bioh's exuberant “School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play,” which marks Goodman Theatre's return to live performances.
Originally slated to open in March 2020 but shut down by the pandemic a few days beforehand, then available briefly in a recording online, the Chicago premiere directed by Lili-Anne Brown resonates even more in the light of everything that's happened. The 80-minute comedy modeled on American movies like “Mean Girls” moves the action to Ghana in 1986 and goes beyond the usual satirical tropes to explore the layers of colorism, classism and colonialism among a group of girls and women and, by extension, in their society and ours.
The setting is the exclusive Aburi Girls’ Senior High School (a real school attended by the playwright's mother), and the situation is that members of a clique are vying to be chosen as competitors in the Miss Ghana beauty pageant, with the hopes of moving on to represent their country at the Miss Global Universe pageant.
The queen bee and odds-on favorite is Paulina Sarpong (Ciera Dawn), who induced her minions to participate because at least five girls were required to sign up. They are her fellow senior and alleged bestie Ama (Adhana Reid), Mercy (Tiffany Renee Johnson), Gifty (Adia Alli) and shy Nana (Ashley Crowe), who loves to snack and is treated with special cruelty by Paulina. The others kowtow to her and hang on her hilarious pronouncements about American institutions like White Castle and "Calvin Klean," gleaned from her cousins who live in the U.S.
Paulina has the support of Headmistress Francis (Tania Richard), and all seems to be going smoothly as the girls wait for the pageant representative who will give one of them a chance. Then a new transfer student, Ericka Boafo (Kyrue Courter), arrives and throws the power structure out of whack. The Ohio-raised daughter of a Ghanaian cocoa factory owner, she wins the minions over with her eagerness to please, her actual knowledge of America and gifts, such as dresses, chocolate and lotions that won't burn your skin like local whitening creams.
To make matters worse, the pageant rep, Eloise Amponsah (Lanise Antoine Shelley), who prides herself on having been “Miss Ghana 1966” also prefers Ericka, who has more social status — but mainly because she has lighter skin. Eloise sees picking a winner as her own path to greater success.
The inevitable clash between Paulina and Ericka brings out the worst in both and leads to revelations that neither is who she seems to be. Paulina, having pressured Nana to steal Ericka's file, hurls accusations about her parentage and past at the girl, while Ericka retaliates with both defensive arguments and taunts. Paulina exposes painful facets of her life and the underlying insecurity and self-hatred that arguably soften our disgust at her meanness to Nana, who ultimately stands up for herself.
This fight is paralleled by an equally vicious one between the Headmistress Francis and Eloise, who had been classmates at the school two decades earlier. They obviously dislike each other and come across as polar opposites, the comparatively calm Francis in her kente cloth and the ambitious, angry Eloise in a flashy designer knock-off.
Eloise's essentially racist attitude wins out in the short term but ultimately comes to naught. The inherent prejudice of global beauty pageants, at least circa 1986, defeats her plans and is meaner than any of the Ghanaians. The fun for us is seeing the deserving — both mean and not — get their due, but the message is more serious than humorous. Lessons are learned, but nobody really wins in the end.
While the acting ensemble is excellent, and watching Paulina's minions interact when she's not around is especially enjoyable, the direction seems a bit broad and heavy-handed, perhaps the result of everyone coming back to the show after a long hiatus and the logistics of the rehearsal process.
The production looks terrific, thanks to Yu Shibagaki's set design with its latticework screens and slowly circulating fans, Jason Lynch's lighting and Samantha C. Jones costumes, particularly the period party gowns. Justin Ellington's sound design is mostly on the mark.
The opening night performance was preceded by a symbolic lighting of the Goodman marquee, signaling what we all hope will be a happier future for theater in Chicago and an end to the pandemic. To help, theater capacity is limited and masks are required. Get vaccinated!