Before the curtain rose on opening night, the audience for “School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play” gathered in front of the theater for remarks from Goodman Theatre artistic director Robert Falls and the play’s director, Lili-Anne Brown, along with a ceremonial relighting of the marquee after seventeen dark months. An exuberant spirit prevailed over the return, mixed with a cautious fatigue that acknowledged all the damage done while the lights were out.
Jocelyn Bioh’s play, a lighthearted teen comedy overshadowed by its troubling themes, was teed up and ready to go—already in previews—at the Goodman early last year when everything shut down three days before opening night. You can’t help but wonder how the work would have been received at the time, as the events of last year, especially the ongoing racial reckoning in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder, now weigh heavily throughout.
Set in 1986 in the Aburi Girls’ Boarding School in Ghana, five teenagers gossip and primp as they prepare for beauty pageant auditions the following day. The social hierarchy of “mean girls” is quickly established, as Paulina, the prettiest and best singer, alternately boasts about her superiority and denigrates her classmates for what she considers their inferiority. She plans to win the audition and use it as a launch pad for a better life—the next Iman—and no one challenges her. Until the new girl arrives, an American named Ericka who has come to live with her Ghanian father and brings beauty products from the promised land, along with the greatest threat to Pauline’s dominance—much paler skin, a byproduct of her white American mother. Played with an approachable, generous charm by Kyrie Courter, Ericka quickly becomes as popular with the clique as Paulina; though her popularity is likely more from her Americanness, her whiteness and her wealth than a magnetic personality.
Though the title is a clear reference to the viciousness of teenagers memorialized in Tina Fey’s 2004 film, the meanness in the play transcends the interactions of the characters. The real meanness here resides in an audience of Americans, many of whom are white, laughing at the naivete of these earnest Ghanaian girls, as they misconstrue an American culture that they idolize. In their imagination, White Castle might be a restaurant of extreme elegance, New York’s Chinatown is a cutting-edge fashion center rather than a designer-knockoff bazaar, Walmart is a luxury boutique, and so on. Everyone idolizes Bobby Brown and his New Edition song “Mr. Telephone Man,” an affliction played for laughs through the retrospective lens of our time; in 1986 when he was embarking on his solo career, plenty of young American women felt the same way.
And so we laugh at the young girls while we share their joie de vivre as they dance and banter. Until we realize how sad it is. That our culture’s dominance of the world has pushed the notion of whiteness to the top so much that girls living in a Black country almost 6,000 miles from Chicago find or lose their self-esteem on the color spectrum. That they bleach their skin to get whiter, even at the expense of their health. That they accept that the girl with the whitest skin advances, deserving or not, and cheer her on. That a beauty pageant is viewed as a ticket out of poverty and obscurity, rather than education. (Only Ama, played as an earnest but intriguing second fiddle by Adhana Reid, has a short conversation about her college plans, but her character disappears into the background of the central narrative.) That even the purportedly moral center of this universe, the headmistress, is easily corrupted by the prospect of proximity to the bright lights and money that comes with it.
To use an overused phrase, the play is a bit too on-the-nose, but the production overcomes its narrative shortfalls with an ensemble cast that manages to channel both joy and empathy, especially the magnificent Ciera Dawn as Paulina, the epicenter of the show and one of the saddest stories you’ll ever hear. Director Brown keeps the story crackling at a brisk pace, and the set design by Yu Shibagaki manages to be stylish and (seemingly) culturally consistent without getting in the way of the story.
In the year-plus since George Floyd’s murder, we’ve collectively grappled with the legacy of white supremacy. This production depicts the mirror image of that cancer; the heartbreaking and unearned sense of Black inferiority that these young women must shape their lives within. Shame on all of us.
At Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn, through August 29.