The Goodman Theatre’s production of School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play, written by Jocelyn Bioh and directed by Lili-Anne Brown, has been on quite a journey. Originally slated to open in March 2020, the production moved online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, Bioh’s sharp comedy returns to the Goodman’s stage after a long absence, and the return is a welcome one.
At an exclusive secondary school in Ghana, queen bee Paulina (Ciera Dawn) is determined to win the Miss Ghana 1986 pageant and ultimately, Miss Global Universe. Sick of being under her thumb, her friends Ama (Adhana Reid), Mercy (Tiffany Renee Johnson), Gifty (Adia Alli), and Nana (Ashley Crowe) are all too eager to latch on to the new girl, American-raised Ericka (Kyrie Courter). Paulina, threatened by Ericka’s newfound popularity and her entry in the Miss Ghana competition, seeks to take the other girl down, and the ensuing chaos blows up more than one friendship. Baked into the story is social commentary on colorism—recruiter Eloise (Lanise Antoine Shelley) favors Ericka because of her light skin—and the lack of respect for African countries like Ghana on the global stage.
This is a play that cannot be watched in silence. Packed with jokes from beginning to end, the witty script and excellent delivery by the actors make it impossible not to laugh throughout the eighty-minute show. Cutting remarks and dramatic revelations prompt gasps, and the exuberant joy of the girls in moments of happiness is both endearing and infectious. The audience, starved of live theatre for over a year, was especially prone to applause as well, although it was always well-deserved.
The cast of School Girls is small but mighty. Reid shines in Ama’s snarky moments, Johnson is hilarious as the energetic Mercy, Alli is an irrepressible Gifty, and Crowe is charming as the shy but courageous Nana. Courter brings a groundedness to Ericka that makes her highly believable. Tania Richard makes for a strong and compassionate Headmistress Francis, and Shelley delivers a great comedic performance as the fussy but cutthroat Eloise. The crown jewel of the show, though, is Dawn, who portrays mean girl Paulina with a level of nuance that allows cruelty, desperation, vulnerability, and much more to exist in the same flawed but not irredeemable teenage girl.
Scenic design by Yu Shibagaki is stunning, featuring beautiful geometric patterns that frame the proscenium, an elegant red structure for the school building, and an impressive twelve practical fans. Costumes by Samantha C. Jones especially shine in the pageant audition, where each girl’s dress perfectly reflects her personality. Lili-Anne Brown’s direction is terrific as always.
School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play packs a punch with its sharp humor and incisive social commentary. Don’t miss this glorious return to the Goodman stage.
Dates: July 30-August 29, 2021
Location: Goodman’s Albert Theatre, 170 N Dearborn Street
Tickets: Tickets (starting at $15) are on sale now online and by phone at 312.443.3800.
Capacity is limited and masks are required. Visit the Goodman website for more information on COVID-19 safety measures.
Photos by Flint Chaney.