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‘School Girls’ explores colorism through a comedic lens

Celina Colby
Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
‘School Girls’ explores colorism through a comedic lens
Sabrina Victor, Tenneh Eillah, Ireon Roach, Geraldine Bogard and Shanelle Chloe Villegas in “School Girls” at Speakeasy Stage. PHOTO: MAGGIE HALL

The 1980s era is alive and well at Speakeasy Stage, where New Edition blasts from the speakers in the production of “School Girls: Or, The African Mean Girls Play.” Running through May 25, the show uses comedy and heart to confront issues of colorism and racism in black communities.

Ireon Roach, Crystin Gilmore and Victoria Byrd. PHOTO: MAGGIE HALL

Ireon Roach, Crystin Gilmore and Victoria Byrd. PHOTO: MAGGIE HALL

The production follows five friends in a boarding school in Ghana whose dynamic is thrown out of whack when a biracial student from America transfers in. Queen bee Paulina (Ireon Roach) worries about losing her grip on the school, while her friends are desperate for a new leader. The stakes are even higher with a scout for Miss Ghana visiting the school to choose a pageant queen.

Playwright Jocelyn Bioh was inspired to write the show because of both her own and her mother’s experiences in boarding school. “I’m also first generation Ghanian, I’m dark-skinned and I’ve had my own kind of journey through owning my own beauty and dealing with colorism,” says Bioh. “And I always wanted to address it, but I didn’t know how to do that without it sounding like a lecture.”

Victoria Byrd and Ireon Roach. PHOTO: MAGGIE HALL

Victoria Byrd and Ireon Roach. PHOTO: MAGGIE HALL

That opportunity arose when she read about the scandal with Erica Nego, the 2011 Miss Universe Ghana contestant who was selected by pageant officials to represent the country despite being born in America. In “School Girls,” similar themes are explored of what it means to be black, what it means to be Ghanian and how to deal with societal beauty standards around race.

In addition to confronting colorism, Bioh breaks stereotypes of the “mean girl.” The show’s antagonist Paulina turns out to have her own challenging back-story, illustrating how women and girls are multifaceted people with dynamic motivations.

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Bioh also hopes the show will challenge misconceptions people have about Africa as solely longsuffering. “I hope people start to see that there’s a real universality to everyone’s experiences,” says Bioh. “There’s no greater equalizer than school. We all, for the most part, have been to school and have dealt with friend groups and cliques and bullying and insecurities and laughter and silliness.”

“School Girls” strikes the perfect balance between comedy and gravity, capturing the spectrum of emotions felt about every event at the high school age. Bioh says, “In a lot of ways ‘School Girls’ is a play about racism — there’s just no white people in it. I hope that audiences that come will really understand the complexity of racism in all its forms.”

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