In communities affected by colonialism across the world, societal oppression deems certain people to be unworthy based on their backgrounds and identities, like their race, gender, color, size, and wealth.
These dynamics are replicated within our interpersonal lives starting at an early age, and the underlying human desire to feel seen and understood can quickly change into a quest for validation and power. Life can feel like a zero-sum game where the only way to win and be seen is to ensure that others are invisible and lose.
In short, this world can make anyone a very mean girl.
Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play is an often comedic, sometimes tear-inducing examination of how systemic oppression and discrimination impact how we see ourselves and each other. It follows a small group of friends at a boarding school in Ghana as they prepare for the 1986 Miss Global Universe pageant. Paulina (Kashayna Johnson), with her glamorous clothing and her professional football-playing boyfriend, is the de facto leader of the bunch. She and her crew believe that she’s a shoo-in to be Miss Ghana. That is, until a new student comes to town.
Light-skinned with loose, auburn curls, Ericka (Claire Saunders), a new student from the U.S., immediately disrupts the group’s dynamic. Also disrupted are the stories Paulina has told herself and the people around her, stories she hoped would provide her with worth in a world that sees dark-skinned Black girls as disposable.
Director Nicole A. Watson and the production team have ensured that every level of the show reinforces the play’s themes. Posters describing dangerous and oppressive aspects of beauty under colonialism hang in Round House’s lobby. In the theater itself, scenic designer Paige Hathaway has transformed the stage into a large school cafeteria with textured stone walls. The show opens as the group of friends sashay into position under pink and turquoise lights as 1980s hits play in the background. This music video moment primes the audience for a high energy show packed with great actors.
The biggest laughs come from Mercy (Debora Crabbe) and Gifty (Moriamo Temidayo Akibu), silly cousins who seem willing to do anything to stay in their friends’ good graces. Akibu is a standout comedian with playful physicality, facial expressiveness, and quickness to shade a friend behind their back before changing their tune once they’re face-to-face. Headmistress Francis (Theresa Cunningham) is a loving matriarchal figure to the friend group who forgets her sternness whenever she got the chance to squeal about her love for Bobby Brown. Ama (Awa Sal Secka) is the mediator, a calm, no-nonsense person brave enough to stand up to Paulina’s unsavory putdowns. And the whole audience roots for Nana (Jade Jones), a sweet and funny student who is often the target of Paulina’s bullying.
One of the show’s best scenes features the students performing Whitney Houston’s classic “The Greatest Love of All” for the bougie Miss Ghana recruiter Eloise (Shirine Bab). Most of the characters are intentionally and hilariously out of tune and off-beat, but, in the harmonies, you can hear that all the actors have legitimate pipes.
As the play’s title suggests, the girls say some truly mean things to each other over the course of the evening. The first line of the play is a jab at Nana’s weight. Fatphobic jokes are sprinkled throughout the play’s dialogue, and much of the audience chuckles awkwardly through these exchanges. It would have been nice if the text explored fatphobia beyond surface-level jokes that, without the appropriate contextualization of the politics of anti-fatness, still manage to punch down.
Throughout it all, School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play is funny and real. Playgoers should be inspired to ask themselves how they contribute to anti-Blackness, colorism, fatphobia, discrimination against poor people, and other forms of oppression that play out in front of our faces every day. But we shouldn’t stop there: We must also ask ourselves what we are doing to stop it.
During one of the play’s final scenes, a character off-screen at the beauty pageant expresses a sentiment that all of the characters share. “I want for once in my life to finally feel seen.” For many poor, dark-skinned Black girls, the world seems intent on making that wish feel like a pipe dream. How do we make sure people feel seen and cherished every day of their lives?
To Oct. 20 at 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. $46–$68. (240) 644-1100. roundhousetheatre.org.