African teens face off in Speakeasy’s ‘School Girls’

Victoria Byrd and Ireon Road in Speakeasy Stage Company’s “School Girls.” Photo: Maggie Hall Photography

BOSTON – You can say a lot with humor. When people are laughing, it’s a great opportunity to make your point – or a series of points.

Playwright/actress Jocelyn Bioh was very aware of this when she sat down to write “School Girls: Or, The African Mean Girls Play,” now being presented through May 25 by the Speakeasy Stage Company at the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts. It manages to preach without being preachy, and will have you examining your own set of biases by the conclusion.

Bioh, the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, was inspired to write “School Girls” by a story she came upon about an American-born, biracial woman who had been crowned Miss Ghana in 2011 in a beauty pageant, and the scandal it caused in the country.

When talking about colorism – bias based on the lightness or darkness of one’s skin – she decided to put the topic in the hands of a cadre of young teen girls in a Ghanaian boarding school, and let the characters do the talking for her.

“I am a comic writer and actress, so it is natural for me to lean on comedy as my mechanism for storytelling,” said Bioh in program notes.

It was a wise choice. “School Girls” says a lot in a compact 80 minutes, not only about colorism and other forms of bias such as body imaging, but bullying, and the simple premise that life can be cruel and unfair, even for the young and innocent.

Kris Sidberry and Crystin Gilmore in “School Girls.” Photo: Maggie Hall Photography

Bioh has set “School Girls” in 1986 one of the best schools in Ghana, the Aburi Girls Boarding School, which is  located in the central mountains of the country.

We are introduced to Mercy (Tenneh Sillah), Nana (Shanelle Chloe Villegas), Gifty (Geraldine Bogard), and Ama (Sabrina Victor), and it is clear from the start they are merely bees buzzing around the queen bee, Paulina Satrpong (Ireon Roach), cocksure about her status at the top of the food chain as well as her inevitable crowning as Miss Ghana, and then on to the Miss Global Universe Pageant.

That means kow-towing to Paulina’s every wish and whim is the order of the day, and woe be to the one who steps out of line.

Unfortunately, Paulina is not above using any and all means at her disposal to keep the other girls in line, including body-shaming Nana for her eating habits.

The no-nonsense Headmistress Francis (Crystin Gilmore, an IRNE winner for Speakeasy’s production of “The Color Purple”) has a lot on her plate, making sure her students stay on track for college, but also that the school itself continues to survive. The discipline at times may seem harsh, but the headmistress is determined that her girls raised under less-than-perfect circumstances get their best chance to succeed.

Francis is approached by Eloise Amponsah (Kris Sidberry) a glamorous former Abrui school student; who was a classmate of Headmistress Francis.and is now a recruiter for the Miss Ghana pageant.

Eloise is a former Miss Ghana herself, and the headmistress is reminded that having a school’s student represent Ghana in the Miss Global Universe Pageant could mean a large contribution to the school itself. Given that, it’s very important that the school out its best foot forward when it comes to selecting a candidate for the pageant.

It seems all very cut and dried until the arrival of Ericka Boafo (Victoria Byrd), who has just returned to the country after a long stint living in the United States. Unlike many of the girls, she is without money worries as her father owns a profitable cocoa processing factory. The lightness of her skin will eventually bring the issue of colorism to the fore.

It is hate at first sight as Ericka captures the other girls with American potions and lotions and hosts a “makeover.”

Paulina’s boasts that a relative works at a high-class American restaurant called “White Castle” and that her clothing is from the exclusive American “Chinatown” line are quickly deflated by Ericka, who sets the other girls straight.

Bioh has some fun with the way American pop culture resonates all over the world, along with attitudes and prejudices that allow the Eloise’s of the world to work their “magic.”

Things come to a head when Paulina and Ericka are pitted against each other for the coveted slot in the Miss Ghana pageant. Skeletons come out of their closets, and the blows exchanged by the young girls will be low and cut to the bone, with a resolution that will be anything but uplifting.

Speakeasy made a wise choice in engaging director Summer L. Williams, who has shown her chops with comic dramas in the past such as Lyric Stage’s “Barbecue” and whose skills get the young cast – several of whom are still undergrads – all on the same page, especially important in a piece in which cultural details and accents vital elements. The pacing is brisk; never rushed but never lagging.

Set designer Baron E. Pugh Has constructed a simple set of a schoolroom with benches that are moved as needed to become open space, a meeting room or cafeteria.

The success of “School Girls” has helped launch the star of Bioh, an accomplished actress who has also written extensively for TV. “School Girls” may indeed owe a debt to movies such as “Mean Girls” and “Heathers,” but Bioh has taken the premise, molded it and made it her own.

The Speakeasy Stage Company production of “School Girls: Or, the African Mean Girls Play.” Written by Jocelyn Bioh. Directed by Summer L. Williams. Scenic design by Baron E. Pugh. Costume design by Miranda Kau Giurleo. Lighting design by Devorah Kengmana. Sound design by Allyssa Jones. At the Calderwrood Pavilion of he Boston Center for the Arts through May 25.