By Jake-ann Jones
Funny but painfully honest look
at beauty standards in School Girls,
or The African Mean Girls Play
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Through February 27
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Using comedy to deliver hard truths, School Girls, or The African Mean Girls Play, by Jocelyn Bioh, is directed by American Stage’s new artistic producing director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj with skillful hilarity.
But wait for it – because when the searing truths on sexism, colorism and the objectification of the female body land, they sneak up on you.
In a production that keeps you snickering for most of the evening, the play, set in Ghana in the 1980s and leading up to a national beauty pageant, is populated by energetic young actors whose over-the-top delivery, giddy laughter and fluid physicality are a delight to experience.
Jada Austin (Nana), Ivy Sunflower (Ama), Massiel Evans (Mercy) and Eckerd College senior Phineas Slaton (Gifty) in her professional debut, all do well playing teen students in an all-girls (we assume) school. They are joined together in a cult of worship (or terror) and beholden to one incredibly spiteful mean girl, Paulina (Aguel Lual).
Lual’s Paulina see-saws between a lovely grace and a wretched bitterness that keeps the audience just as captivated by her as her four sycophants. Should we/they love her? Pity her? Hate her?
Lual’s deft performance keeps you teetering and uncertain how to feel about her – even as her obvious beauty is called into question (by a prejudiced society, unfriendly cultural and painful self-hatred) in ways that pull at our hearts.
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But the tables are turned when young, biracial, American-raised Ericka (played by Siobhan Marie Hunter) appears. A sweet-faced charmer with a full-sized physique that is prized in many African cultures, she serves as an immediate threat to the sly and terrifying Paulina. Hunter’s Ericka is not as damaged, but she believably portrays her as a character with her own painful past.
Adding a preternatural beauty and grace is the ever-youthful Phyllis Yvonne Stickney, a veteran of stage and screen whose Headmistress Francis holds the audience’s pain as an elder who has seen too much.
When the headmistress’ grim determination to encourage her students with admonitions on the wisdom of prizing brains over beauty is ultimately called to betray itself as a hard choice befalls her, we too swallow the bitterness Stickney’s performance reveals.
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Her comic foil enters in the character of Eloise Ampohsah, “Miss Ghana 1966” – played with pitch perfect comedic timing by another stage and screen veteran, Jennifer Leigh Warren.
Warren’s Ampohsah struggles to maintain her barely-held grasp on her bygone beauty queen days, straining to keep it together under pent-up frustrations and ultimately revealing the cynicism and hypocrisy at the root of the long-awaited competition.
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While the play takes place in the ‘80s, Stickney and Warren shared thoughts on the play’s comedy, and the universality of its theme – the objectification of women’s bodies and image – as it plays out in today’s world.
Warren says it was important to her to allow Amposah to be larger-than-life and really add to the comedic element of the play – which in turn, created even more surprise when the tension was wound up and her character revealed her own deeply-buried pain.
“We all understand that if you if you heighten the comedy, it also heightens the tragedy,” notes the actress. “I think it makes it an easier thing, that people get to laugh. And then you hit them with the seriousness of the subject.”
As far as today’s heightened pressure from the media and internet, Stickney comments, “Any woman can feel, deal with how the world or their peers view them, based on their size, based on their complexion, based on their eye color – based on anything that is external, anything they cannot really change.
“No one decided that they would be born Black, brunette, redhead, whatever it is,” she continues. “And so, if the world is judging you based on that external element, then all of us have the same kinds of issues or the same kinds of challenges that we have to [deal with].”
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Another universality of the play, Stickney notes, is how women do or don’t support each other, and how families also contribute to our feelings of self-worth, or lack thereof.
“It’s not just African American, but it’s actually all women,” Warren adds. “As African American women, it’s even more pervasive. I think what’s interesting about the play is that it gets people to think about it. Because some people don’t even realize that this happens, and how it happens. In the last moments in the play, it gets people to really feel for Paulina, and the Headmistress, who understands Paulina’s trauma.”
Both agree that there are even more pressures put on young girls growing up today, while being bombarded with images that tell them that they’re not beautiful and ok just as they are.
“But to me, that’s the message that’s in the play, because of how it was directed, how it was cast. And I think that everyone comes in and they can have a great time,” Stickney asserts.
Warren agrees, adding “Male and female.”
Phyllis Yvonne Stickney performs Laughter & Lyrics,
a solo show of Conscious Comedy, Spoken Word and Song
on Monday, February 21 at 7 pm. Details here.
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Originally published in The Weekly Challenger
Photos by Chaz D Photography