Photo: Wesley Hitt
When you hear an upbeat, major chord pop song, it’s easy to believe there’s not much beyond its saccharine surface. But sometimes a second listen or a dig into the lyrics shows otherwise – hiding under the tempo and enthusiasm is a layer of darkness or sadness.
“School Girls: Or, The African Mean Girls Play,” streaming now via a production staged in Fayetteville by TheatreSquared, is this kind of fun-loving, fast-paced piece of art with an uncomfortable story at its core.
The play by Jocelyn Bioh debuted Off Broadway in 2017. It is billed as a comedy, and was even called “gleeful” by The New York Times. While true, there’s also what New York Magazine notes as “a sting inside all this fun.”
What: “School Girls: Or, The African Mean Girl Play”
When: Streaming daily through Feb. 14
Where: TheatreSquared’s website at theatre2.org
Cost: $25 for an individual stream; $35 for a household stream
Tickets: 479-777-7477 or theatre2.org
There are indeed many fun moments within “School Girls,” which is set in the cafeteria of the Aburi Girls’ Senior High School in Ghana. Paulina (played locally by Makha Mthembu) runs the school’s main clique and is a shoo-in to be the school’s representative in an upcoming beauty pageant. That event will send one young woman to represent Ghana at the Miss Global Universe pageant, providing a rare path out of the village. She’s laser-focused too – she eats apples to stay skinny. There’s a laugh line wrapped up in this exchange when we learn of the American phrase “an apple a week keeps you from being sick.” Filtered through the students’ West African accents and distorted sense of Americana, it’s far funnier than I make it sound. The story is full of various malapropisms and references to fancy American fashion boutiques such as Walmart. There’s also a healthy dose of infatuation with Bobby Brown – the play is set in 1986, after all.
Paulina is, to borrow from the title, a mean girl. She berates those who don’t follow her high-fiber, sparse diet and encourages those around her to take actions that will result in school detentions and reprimands.
She’s in stark contrast to newcomer Ericka (played by Amira Dinan), who is … nice. Newly arrived in Ghana from the United States, Ericka is quick to share makeup and designer dresses with Paulina’s friends, who are just as quick to rally around someone who seems to care about them. Plus, Ericka has signed up to compete for the pageant, putting her in direct competition with Paulina.
These aren’t the only contrasts between Ericka and Paulina. Ericka is far more fair-skinned than Paulina, despite the latter’s dangerous use of bleaching creams to appear lighter skinned. This difference is not lost on Eloise (Jasmine M. Rush), the former Miss Ghana who must select one girl from Aburi to compete in the pageant. She knows which of the two will be more marketable than the other. So does Pauline, who attempts to prevent Ericka from being selected for the pageant.
It’s hard to root for Paulina, considering how awful she can be. It’s also hard to root against her, considering the pageant might be her only ticket to success. The opposite is true for Ericka – we want her to succeed because she’s likable. It’s also easy to want someone else to win because Ericka has been handed the kind of opportunities Paulina can only dream of. These pushes and pulls of class, status and privilege play out how you might expect but are no less heartbreaking when they reach their conclusion.
We’re still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which means “live” theater isn’t truly live. The TheatreSquared production did have a few staff members in the audience when it was filmed, and you can hear an occasional burst of laughter, but otherwise there is only quiet and intense focus on the on-stage proceedings, captured by four cameras set up inside the venue. There are also a few new roles listed in the playbill – Camera Operator, Film Editor, COVID-19 Testing Nurse, COVID-19 Compliance Monitors and Livestream Support staff.
Otherwise, it aligns with our general expectations of what T2 does – choosing new and vivacious theatrical works and bringing in professional-level talent to act in them. If there were corners cut because these shows don’t have a traditional audience, I’m not sure what they were. Most of the cast hails from outside of the area and has significant regional theater experience on their resume. The set, though sparse, was purpose built for the production, and the costuming is playful enough to match the mood of the show.
The live streaming version is a robust high-definition stream, and that requires considerable bandwidth. I found that I could watch without interruption on my laptop, but if I tried to mirror my screen onto my television (like I can with other programs), glitches developed. As each home streaming situation is different because of internet bandwidth, hardware capabilities and screen sizes, individual experiences may vary. Which is a way of saying I can’t vouch for how the experience might work on your own devices, but that I do expect it will take you a moment to find your best experience. The same streaming mechanism that can hamper the experience can also be viewed a positive – I stopped my stream for a few moments to fix myself lunch and returned to the show right where I left off, not unlike any show I might stream on one of the popular platforms. You can start and stop and even replay the show as many times as you’d like in your availability window, which runs from noon on the day of your ticket purchase to noon the following day. With a 90 minute run time, you could watch “School Girls” 16 times back to back if you chose not to sleep.
I doubt that anyone will do so, of course. But without opportunities to safely experience live theater, this is as much as we can expect of a production considering the cliché but true “in these unprecedented times” scenario. Here in Fayetteville, we have a production that was purposefully staged, imbued with a talented cast and carefully filmed.
We are privileged to have such an offering from our own region.