Colorism, bullying in Ohio State graduate's 'Mean Girls'-influenced coming-of-age play

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Jocelyn Bioh
Jocelyn Bioh

For New York playwright and Ohio State University graduate Jocelyn Bioh, CATCO’s next production fulfills a youthful dream.

CATCO will present Bioh’s “School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play,” which begins previews Jan. 27 and opens Jan. 29 in the Riffe Center.

High school girls at an elite Ghana boarding school grapple with body image, beauty and acceptance while entering a 1986 beauty pageant in the off-Broadway hit.

“It’s a smart, heartfelt comedy with substance,” director Shanelle Marie said.

“Lots of people can relate to this coming-of-age story, which sheds light on challenges teenage girls everywhere confront while widening the conversation to how it looks based on where you are in the world,” Marie said.

Bioh, who graduated from OSU in 2005, was happy to learn that her play would receive its professional Columbus premiere at CATCO.

“I was, ‘Wow!’ I would have loved to have been in a play like this with an all-black-women cast at OSU,” Bioh said from New York.

Jocelyn Bioh draws on her Ghanaian American heritage

Growing up in New York with Ghanaian American immigrant parents, Bioh attended a Pennsylvania boarding school and then studied in OSU’s theater and English departments. Gradually, the aspiring actress realized that if she wanted more roles, she’d better write them herself.

“I slid very organically into playwriting,” said Bioh, 38.

“It was a bumpy road, because the theater program was more traditional then... Not a lot of work was being produced by or for people of color, so I felt limited at times with the roles I could play,” she said.

Drawing upon her Ghanaian American heritage, Bioh wrote plays after graduating from OSU and returning to New York to enter Columbia University’s playwriting program, from which she graduated in 2008.

Yet, Bioh struggled for years to get her work staged. “It didn’t seem to be working out,” she said.

Meanwhile, she pursued acting to support herself.

Jocelyn Bioh: Beginning on Broadway

Bioh made her 2014 Broadway debut in the Tony-winning play “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and appeared in several plays off-Broadway, receiving a Lucille Lortel Award nomination for featured actress in Signature Theatre’s “Everybody.”

Not until 2017, though, did she make her off-Broadway playwriting debut with the extended and acclaimed premiere of “School Girls.”

Now popular nationwide, the comedy was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for outstanding play and won the 2018 Lortel Award for Outstanding Play and Outer Critics Circle’s John Gassner Award for New American Playwright.

In his New York Times review, Jesse Green noted that while the comedy is built on borrowed templates, “the nasty-teen comedy genre emerges wonderfully refreshed and even deepened by its immersion in a world it never considered.”

Bioh expected to drop the “Mean Girls” subtitle reference when her script was accepted, but producers convinced her to keep it.

“That subtitle still exists because I knew the film, which I really loved, was so popular that it immediately contextualizes the play. Being set in a high school with tropes we’re familiar with, like ‘Mean Girls,' makes it more universal... There’s no real way to explore high school experience without exploring bullying,” she said.

Kerri Garrett
Kerri Garrett

About the actors in 'School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play'

Kerri Garrett plays senior Paulina Sarpong, queen bee of the school’s clique of 16- to 18-year-olds.

“Feisty and manipulative, she’s head of the class and adjacent to the ‘Mean Girls’ Regina as the most popular,” Garrett said.

Paulina is threatened by the arrival of fair-skinned Ericka Boafo, an American student.

“Paulina juggles issues prevalent in the Black community... especially colorism, an issue across cultures that puts light-skinned people on a higher pedestal from internalized Eurocentric standards of beauty,” Garrett said.

Wilma Hatton plays Francis, headmistress of the Aburi Girls Boarding School.

“Her main objective is to instill in these young women respect for themselves, their elders and each other and above all, to get their education. Years ago, Francis was a student at the school, wanting acceptance, so she sees herself in these young women — and sees vulnerability in beautiful Paulina, who happens to be dark-skinned,” Hatton said.

Wilma Hatton
Wilma Hatton

The headmistress comes into conflict with Eloise Amponsah (Anita Davis), a fellow former student selected to be Miss Ghana 1966 who returns as pageant recruiter with European attitudes about beauty.

“Back in the ‘60s, they had a rivalry that recreates itself,” Hatton said.

“Francis believes any of her girls would win, but Eloise has a fixation on fair-complexioned Ericka as the best girl,” Hatton said.

Left to right, Wilma Hatton, Lisa Glover and Kerri Garrett in “School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play.”
Left to right, Wilma Hatton, Lisa Glover and Kerri Garrett in “School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play.”

The 90-minute one-act, suggested for ages 12 and older despite brief profanity, was inspired by a true story: Outsider Erica Nego sparked controversy in 2011 as a lighter-skinned Miss Ghana in the Miss Universe pageant.

“The model, who had a Ghanaian father and white American mother, was procured from Minnesota... It became a scandal because they thought colorism was in play,” Bioh said.

“As a dark-skinned young woman reckoning for years with my own self-esteem and whether I was beautiful, I always knew I wanted to explore that issue in a play. Coming across the beauty-pageant story gave me a way,” she said.

Now a resident Lincoln Center playwright and former TV writer for the Emmy-nominated series “Russian Doll,” Bioh has written other plays (including “Nollywood Dreams,” recently staged off-Broadway) and musicals (“Goddess,” opening in March at Berkeley Rep.)

Virtually all of Bioh’s plays are set in Ghana or other locales in Africa and tend to be comedies.

“I am Ghanaian, in tune with a lot of Ghanaian culture. ... Even when writing something darker and more dramatic, I found it came out as a comedy. ... ’School Girls’ is really funny because it’s rooted in truth. Comedy is just a funny way of being serious,” Bioh said.

Today, Bioh sees “School Girls” as even more timely.

“These coming-of-age stories will always resonate because it’s where you choose the path to your life. ... But everything now is about public face and who’s presenting the best version of themselves, because of the way cellphones and social media inundate us with images of what society says is beautiful,” she said. “I think that’s a bigger issue now than when I was a student.”

mgrossberg1@gmail.com

@mgrossberg1

At a glance

CATCO will present “School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play” at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 27, Feb. 3 and Feb. 10; 8 p.m. Jan. 28-29, Feb. 4-5 and Feb. 11-12; and 2 p.m. Jan. 30, Feb. 6 and Feb. 13 in the Riffe Center’s Studio Two Theatre, 77 S. High St. Masks and proof of vaccination or negative PCR COVID test required within 72 hours of attending a production for patrons 12 and older. Tickets cost $45. (614-469-0939, www.cbusarts.com)

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Ohio State graduate Jocelyn Bioh's play 'School Girls' on bullying

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