The set of School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play is made of an earthy color palette of oak, grass, and desert yellow, taking place in the cafeteria of Aburi Girls Boarding School in the mountains of Ghana. But the moment the Arden Theatre’s Arcadia Stage dims, the white–paper window paneling and tranquil plant silhouettes explode into a hot pink, covering the stage as an electric guitar cues five girls to sit down for lunch.
Jocelyn Bioh’s play, directed by Amina Robinson, follows the anticipation of the historically based Miss Ghana Pageant. In the script, her Playwright’s Note reads: “I thought the story was pretty damn interesting and wanted to explore how the Western idea of colorism infiltrated into African society.” However, Bioh not only resonated with this society on a national level, but also—through the premise of a beauty pageant—breaks a fourth wall to directly address the theatre industry’s own discrimination.
The head of the play’s central friend group, Paulina (Morgan Charéce Hall), has been training for the competition for all of high school. She will happily brag about her solos in the school choir to her family in the states who work for what she thinks are the most royal, upscale restaurants like White Castle. That is until Ericka, a transfer from Ohio, bewitches the school with the “true” stories about America and a signed Bobby Brown poster that the girls screech over. Ericka is biracial with (as Bioh describes it) “light/fair skin.” For those of you who are thinking that this sounds like a reversed parallel of Tina Fey’s 2004 Mean Girls, the show will prove you wrong.
Of course School Girls has its masterful comedic moments that inspired standing ovations and a few extra minutes of applause for the audience to recover their breathing—whether it be the girls’ disheveled, but enthusiastic, performance of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” and the pageant recruiter exulting in a “Praise God!” or simply Mercy (Jessica Money) and Gifty (Adaeze Nwoko) bumping their hips in sync. But at the heart of the play is the self–destruction caused by colorism and the demon of body image. School Girls reveals that on the global stage, African girls are left in a blackout.
Amina Robinson’s direction spectacularly modernizes a piece based in 1986—so much so that it gives the play the presence of a moving camera. The choices of neon lighting and spontaneous rock music give the stage a cinematic effect: Ericka’s entrance feels like it is in slow motion and the flickering of an old box TV contorts the stage like a cut scene, even when the set is unmoving for the entirety of the show. She transforms School Girls into an interactive experience, with characters teasing the audience for “Woots!” and offering pauses for clapping, immersing us in the sarcastic, dramatic arena of high school and subsequently forcing us to face its seriousness up close.
After the pageant recruiter, Eloise (Danielle Leneé)—who won’t stop reminding you that she was “Miss Ghana 1966”—starts to favor Ericka as a promising winner for the Miss Ghana competition, Paulina embarks on her mission to maintain her power. In a scarring monologue, she persuades Nana (Arielle Faye Telemaco–Beane) to steal Ericka’s file while she sits through detention for sneaking snacks into class. Spitting insults after Nana refuses, Paulina delivers the blistering lines, “Do you hear me? Or do you have food stuffed in your ears too, you fucking cow?” Then, after threatening to report her to their headmistress, she whispers, “And I know you don’t want to be sent back to your mother with the way she likes to starve you. I mean, I can’t blame her. I’d be ashamed if I had a fat–ass daughter too.”
On the dreaded day where Eloise makes her choice for the pageant, Paulina is alone in her black and gold gown, rehearsing last–minute answers for the judges. Sitting in silence, she pulls out a jar of cream from her handbag. Dabbing it on her face and then shoving it back inside, she frantically fans her face from the burning she immediately feels. Suddenly, after the girls arrive and erupt in a fight—similar to the wild breakout in the halls of North Shore High School after Regina George’s photocopied rampage of the Burn Book—Ericka and Paulina are sentenced to the room by themselves to apologize to one another. Paulina says, “The world has already decided … you are better than me.” When Paulina reveals that she grew up in a poor village, she shares one of Bioh’s most heartbreaking lines: “Even with our little bit of money, my mother gave me bleaching cream instead of food—cause that would ‘serve me better in life?!’” From this revelation alone, Bioh seems to be dropping subtle hints to the theatre community by contextualizing the abhorrent treatment of African women through the lens of beauty standards.
In the final scene, the girls crouch around a TV screen after Ericka has advanced to Miss Universe, awaiting the results. After the countdown of a series of European countries, the announcer says, “And we’re back folks, with the top ten most beautiful women in the world,” as the screen zips and crackles off. Not one African competitor made it to the list.
The Arden’s production of School Girls is an all–female, all–Black sensation of cultural celebration and critique, playing right in Philadelphia, a majority–Black city itself. But Penn theatre, just as much a role in the city’s artistic community, has failed to do the same. The cultural and beauty pressures within the theatre industry that Bioh’s play nods at are here on our campus as well. Penn’s student population has a single–digit percentage of Black students, causing extracurricular theatre groups’ stories to be consistently funneled into a single narrative.
However, this statistic is not to be blamed for the lack of representation in the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts’ stages. The Theatre Arts Council, which includes some other independent theatre companies in the Performing Arts Council, undergoes the process of selecting shows each season and typically comes out with a piece that may be politically and socially relevant, but is culturally blank. Typically, this would be a script that doesn’t include roles whose characters are based on any background—ranging from ethnicity to gender. While this seems like the most inclusive scenario, it is simply the easy way out.
This practice in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) makes “color–blind” casting possible, but to a live audience, nothing is truly absolved of the director’s choice regarding who to put where in a show. The audience’s own perceptions coming into the theater have already been formed. From my personal experiences witnessing this, my past partner on the stage, Cristle Ike (C '23), a Black actress and DEI chair of a performing arts group on campus, calls for “color–conscious” casting in which the creative teams are aware of any details within the plot regarding a character that inadvertently perpetuates a stereotype, even if it is technically open to any identity.
Today, Penn only has a few small oases for self–expression specific to cultural celebration. For example, the African American Arts Alliance and the After School Arts at Penn program help Penn fill its role as a welcoming institution for the mostly Black community surrounding them. However, the only way to increase involvement is to advertise on greater, more comprehensive levels rather than remaining isolated from those already in–the–know of these opportunities (as Penn tends to do).
School Girls at the Arden Theatre, across the city to the other river of Philadelphia, is embedded with a lesson that Penn must learn from. When it comes to minorities missing their voice, it isn’t because they don’t have a restless passion for it. It’s because no one is giving them the chance to speak. Cristle says, “We don’t only struggle, we also laugh. It can’t be the story of a white person [that] we are just reinterpreting; that’s not our complete story.”
Correction: A previous version of this article did not cite Cristle Ike as a source who had spoken about her experiences as a Black actress in Penn's theatre scene. The article has since been updated to reflect this change. Street regrets this error.