Tensions flare in an all-girl boarding school, on stage now in Toronto
Obsidian Theatre, in association with Nightwood Theatre, presents Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. That title sure is catchy and has, no doubt, already hooked you in with the promise of young women behaving badly. I assure you: it does not disappoint, serving up plenty of flaring nostrils and raging egos. It’s the aching heart underneath, though, that drives this story.
The play opens at an elite girls boarding school in Ghana where the giddy camaraderie, teen angst and treacherous bullying feel universal. With preparations for the 1986 Miss Universe contest underway, we meet five students who will be competing for the chance to be Miss Ghana.
This tightly knit yet precarious social circle is lead by the cocky and domineering Paulina, portrayed with menacing and agonized intensity by Natasha Mumba. Her reign is threatened with the arrival of a new student from America, Ericka (Melissa Eve Langdon). Her entrance is like a burst of fresh air, dissipating the dark tension of Paulina’s judgmental presence. Poised and spritely in the role, Langdon also conveys a keen awareness and intelligence.
To Paulina, though, her appearance is a sudden slap to the face as the other girls fuss over her. Her lighter skin becomes a point of contention, as does her claim to Ghanaian roots.
Akosua Amo-Adem’s Headmistress is a joy to behold as she struggles to maintain order among her charges. She’s a fierce and compassionate protector of the girls’ dignity and morale when the Miss Ghana recruiter, Eloise (a flamboyant and ferocious Allison Edwards-Crewe), shows up to fan the flames of fiery competition between them. It is in these two older women that we are given a glimpse into the way cultural influence and personal choice work hand-in-hand to mold personality.
As secrets are revealed and painful truths realized, we are shown those cruel expectations that threaten to diminish these women and distort their character. Each of them has their own unique coping mechanisms, which provide both humour and heartbreak. Bioh’s play demonstrates, with sharp insights, how their very personhood is constantly under attack—often from within. Particularly vile is the festering shadeism they contend with.
The production is grounded in naturalism, but there is a stylistic flair to the performances that is immensely entertaining while it conveys character. Tawiah Ben M’Carthy’s movement direction is gentle and subtle when it needs to be, but he isn’t afraid to go bold and brassy to strike straight through to the core of a moment.
The rest of the ensemble—Mercy (Bria McLaughlin) , Nana (Tatyana Mitchel), Ama (Rachel Mutombo) and Gifty (Emerjade Simms)—are marvelous fun. Under Nina Lee Aquino’s precise yet delightfully playful direction, their dynamic is both piercingly honest and totally hilarious.
There isn’t a single wasted moment in School Girls. When I wasn’t laughing with gleeful abandon, I was stunned by some vicious jab or touched by a quiet moment of understanding and compassion. It was enthralling from start to finish. I only wish I could have more time with these beautiful, rich characters that I came to love.
- School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play is playing until March 24, 2019 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander Street)
- Shows run Tuesday through Saturday at 8:00 pm, with matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 pm
- Tickets are $15 to $40
- Tickets can be purchased through the box office at 416.975.8555 or online
Photo of Bria Mack, Tatyana Mitchell, Natasha Mumba, Rachel Mutombo & Emerjade Simms by Cesar Ghisilieri.