A powerful and nuanced look at cultural standards of beauty, School Girls, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through September 30th, deftly combines humor and anguish. Its in-your-face message: “The world rewards those with light skin.”
The play’s mid-‘80s era does not make its message any less timely. The students at an exclusive girls’ boarding school in Ghana may reference New Edition-era Bobby Brown and wear puffy taffeta dresses, but their obsession with beauty as an achievement more important than education is, sadly, all too common in the here and now.
Paulina (Maameyaa Boafo) is the meanest of mean girls. She’s also laser-focused on becoming a contestant in the upcoming Miss Ghana pageant and, she assumes, the global pageant that follows. She insults her classmates’ looks, families and intellect, the better to position herself as queen bee.
The girls have all been wounded by Paulina. They’re ripe for a new leader, and miraculously one appears: Ericka (Joanna A. Jones), straight from some strange land called Ohio. She’s mixed-race, with a white American mother whose death has brought her to her father’s native Ghana. Although arriving late to the school term, she readily wins over the girls with her generosity and tales of American culture.
When a school alumna and pageant recruiter – the elegant Miss Ghana 1966 (Zenzi Williams) – appears shortly after Ericka, Paulina finds she’s not the pageant shoe-in she anticipated. She and the others at school must confront society’s definition of beauty and the balance between ambition and remaining true to oneself.
The debut from playwright Jocelyn Bioh, School Girls debuted Off-Broadway last year at the Louise Lortel’s MCC Theater and returns to the Louise Lortel mainstage October 22nd with the same cast currently at the Kirk Douglas. Bioh and Tony-winning director Rebecca Taichman have created a work that builds from laughs to shock. It’s a thoughtful crowd-pleaser, and a moving look inside a far-off culture not so different from our own.
A brief PSA: A female playwright (never mind an all-female cast and director) shouldn’t be an anomaly, but it’s way outside the norm. Among 1,917 plays produced in 2017 at 500+ American theaters, only 26% were written by women. Women of color? Barely a blip. Yet currently, Center Theatre Group has three shows running that were written by African-American women: Ain’t Too Proud at the Ahmanson (by Dominique Morisseau), Sweat at the Taper by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lynn Nottage and this one. Kudos to CTG. See them all and help support changing face of theater.
School Girls runs 75 minutes with no intermission. (The show started about 15 minutes late the night our reviewer attended.) Tickets are available here. The Kirk Douglas Theatre is at 9820 Washington Blvd, Culver City. Validate your ticket and park for free in numerous nearby lots (details here).