It’s only a coincidence that “School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play,” arrives at Pittsburgh Public Theater just days after the touring production of Broadway show “Mean Girls” left the neighboring Benedum Center.
But the nod in the comedy’s subtitle is telling. Playwright Jocelyn Bioh’s homage to Tina Fey’s film and musical is forthright, if informed by a notably different cultural perspective.
“School Girls” is set in 1986, in a boarding school in Ghana. The plot turns on the arrival of a mixed-race student from the U.S. named Ericka, who poses a status challenge to the school’s queen bee, Paulina, in the run-up to the Miss Ghana beauty contest.
It’s a geographic reversal of the film and musical, where the newbie (who is white) has relocated from Kenya to Chicago. The African setting allows Bioh – a first-generation Ghanaian-American who grew up in New York City – to explore issues including not only bullying but also colorism, the belief that lighter skin tones are more attractive.
Colorism is potent enough that some dark-skinned Africa women use dangerous bleaching products to achieve the desired look.
New York-based Shariffa Ali, who directs the Public’s production of “School Girls,” was born in Kenya. She grew up in South Africa, where she confronted both racism and colorism.
“I believe Lupita Nyong’o put it very beautifully, that colorism is the cousin of racism in many ways,” said Ali. “I like to think of it as part of the inherited trauma [of colonialism,] where basically there is a prioritization of lightness and whiteness. So the closer you are to having sort of European or Eurocentric features, the more beautiful you’re perceived to be.”
“We’re interrogating colorism, we’re interrogating the notion of self-hatred, and we’re interrogating the notion of beauty,” said Ali. “Who’s beautiful, who gets to say who is and who isn’t?”
But “School Girls” is no lecture. For one thing, Bioh (who’s also an actor) is an accomplished playwright, with several produced works to her credit. “School Girls” has been especially lauded. Its 2017 Off-Broadway production earned critical acclaim, and honors including the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play.
Moreover, “School Girls” is a comedy – one that has fun with its '80s setting. (Cue “The Greatest Love of All.”) Bioh “just has a really, really fine-tuned ear for comedy, and for capturing, essentially, the African voice in many ways,” said Ali.
“I think it’s really great that we use comedy as an entry point to learning about people from other parts of the world, and other countries, and also in many ways mirroring how Ghanaian society in the ’80s is very similar to suburban American society in the here and now,” she said.
The cast of eight includes Markia Nicole Smith, as Paulina, and Aidaa Peerzada, as Ericka.
Ali, incidentally, views her “School Girls” directing gig as a sort of homecoming. She first came to the U.S., in 2013, because of an opportunity in Pittsburgh. But that two-week artist residency at the August Wilson Center was followed by a trip to New York City that was meant as a brief vacation but turned into a permanent stay in 2015.
The first performance of “School Girls” is Thu., Nov. 7. The show runs through Dec. 8. Ticket information is here.
WESA receives funding from Pittsburgh Public Theater.