Set in 1986 at a girls school in Ghana, School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play showcases The Jungle Theater’s mission at its best. Written by Jocelyn Bioh and directed by Shá Cage with an entirely female cast, School Girls takes tropes we are familiar with to tell stories that are so often excluded.
School Girls revolves around a small clique of high school girls at an all-girls school in Ghana. Ruled over by the tyrannical and supposedly American-savvy Paulina Sarpong (Ashe Jaafaru), the group’s dynamic changes when new girl Ericka Boafo (Eponine Diatta), joins their school and upsets Paulina’s typical dominance. While Paulina and the rest of the girls were born and raised in Ghana, Ericka was raised by her white mother in Ohio. Ericka immediately sees through Paulina’s knock-off American clothing (Calvin Klein) and starts to woo the other girls away. Her lighter skin, more manageable hair, offers of free dresses, and kindness are all incentives for the group.
What makes this play work so well is the way it relies on a the well-known high school narratives made popular by everything from Mean Girls and The Heathers, to Pretty in Pink and Easy A, while also addressing hard-hitting questions and prejudices those works don’t choose to foreground. At the center of School Girls is the arrival of the recruiter Eloise Amponsah, (Hope Cervantes), who is responsible for hand-selecting Ghana’s Miss Universe candidate. Eloise was Miss Ghana 1966, and thinks she knows what the judges are looking for. Headmistress Francis (Ivory Doublette), suggests Paulina, but Eloise sets her sights on the more “international” and “marketable” Ericka. It is a cruel choice based in colorism that the play doesn’t shy away from.
Jaafaru as Paulina and Diatta as Ericka have great stage presence together. Particularly excellent is Ericka’s slowly eroding good humor in the face of Paulina’s ever-increasing malice. When the girls almost come to blows, the crescendo of movement and words is electric. While it’s easy to see Paulina and Ericka as the central protagonists of the piece, their skirmishes would not work nearly as well without the backdrop of the giggling and guffawing clique (many of whom might actually be more interesting characters). Mercy (Kiara Jackson), Ama (Aishẻ Keita), Nana (Salome Mergia), and Gifty (Nimene Sierra Wureh) act like a Greek chorus--they repeat excellent jabs and their laugher sets the stage for the cruelty and fun of high school. Some of their stories are more prominent (in particular Nana’s constant hunger, which the incredibly thin Paulina never hesitates to chastise Nana about), but everyone is struggling with something; no one is as carefree as they would like the others to believe. Eloise and Headmistress Francis play out this school girl tension themselves, reminding us that no matter how much older we get, wounds inflicted during childhood and petty rivalries can still follow us.
Setting the play in the 1980s allows for all the fantastic fashion the era is known for, and Jacqueline Addison’s costuming is pitch-perfect--utilitarian gingham mixed with highly communicative statement pieces (such as Eloise’s fantastic white jumpsuit with red belt, or Paulina’s shoulderless green competition dress). Combined with the practical but invitingly warm set by Seitu Jones, they set the tone of place and time perfectly.
School Girls is yet another wonderful production that reinforces Jungle Theater’s commitment to women and marginalized stories. I have been privileged to see much of the Jungle’s programming this year, and Sarah Rasmussen's curatorial vision for the company is clear, immediate, and deeply compelling. She wants to showcase women and our many stories and voices. Minneapolis is lucky to have her.
School Girls runs at the Jungle Theater until April 14th. Don’t miss your chance to see it!