By Sandi Durell
There are a lot of mean girls around – not only in Ghana where this play takes place in the 1980s, but worldwide. And, there is another very different Mean Girls getting ready to launch on Broadway shortly that Tina Fey is working on. But, believe me, nothing could rival the African Mean Girls Play at Lucille Lortel Theatre written by Jocelyn Bioh and directed by Tony Award winning Rebecca Taichman.
In a private boarding school in Ghana are a group of girls who have spent too much time making nice to the very mean Queen Bee Paulina (the wonderful MaameYaa Boafo) whose friendships with the other girls are dependent on her manipulation of them; some easily succumbing, others frightened of being ostracized from the group if they do not. Paulina survives on her nasty belittling of her ‘friends’ who, thus far, have been willing to take it until Ericka (lovely Nabiyah Be – Hadestown at NYTW) arrives from America to attend the school. Ericka’s father owns one of the most successful cocoa plantations in the country and she has returned to her roots in Ghana. Her aura is light, breezy and one of inner security which the girls instantly gravitate towards. And she knows, first hand and is willing to share, her knowledge of beauty and shopping tips, name brands and especially about Bobby Brown – just what the girls read about in American magazines that titillates their curiosity.
The competition Paulina feels towards Ericka is instant and fierce as her antennae rise in fear and fight mode. This is the time for the Miss Ghana pageant where one girl from the various schools will be chosen to compete in a country-wide competition and then go off to the International Worldwide pageant. Paulina has no boundaries as she oozes sweetness when meeting the former Miss 1966 Ghana, Eloise (the incredible Zainab Jah –Eclipsed) who will judge and choose the girl who moves forward. The school is run by the very caring Headmistress Francis (Myra Lucretia Taylor – Nine, Electra).
Paulina who is always making fun of the heavy set Nana (sweet Abena Mensah-Bonsu), forces her to steal Ericka’s file so she can arm herself with any information that might help her retain her status and jeopardize Ericka from being chosen.
The other girls are two very funny and lighthearted Paige Gilbert (as Gifty) and Mirirai Sithole (as Mercy) who play two chattering over-excited cousins, and Nike Kadri (who plays the role of Ama) Paulina’s supposed ‘best friend’ and takes a lot of abuse.
Paulina is secretly trying to lighten her skin tone bringing the question of beauty and what it symbolizes into focus big time, raising issues of racial divide depending on skin color (Colorism) and those who are treated differently based on ‘shade of ‘blackness.’ These are pertinent and very current issues; the perceptions can cause alienation within a group.
The girls in this play are like any teens around the globe as they compare themselves to others and how they create acceptability or not, as they attempt to garner respect.
Of course, Ericka is the chosen winner and new Queen Bea at the school, eventually making it through to the International pageant in spite of some rigging that must be done by Eloise when issues, caused by Paulina, arise that could make Ericka ineligible. As the girls watch the televised finals of the pageant, there is a bonding and acceptance that brings Paulina back into the circle of forgiveness. Numerous lessons learned.
The simple and efficient set is created by Arnulfo Maidonado; costume design guided by the hand of dilect coach Deborah Hecht.
African Mean Girls is not to be missed. Jocelyn Bioh is to be congratulated on her ability to create a very humorous script bringing topical/important issues to light, together with Rebecca Taichman on her always splendid creativity in directing this oh, so talented cast.
Photos: Joan Marcus
Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, – run time 90 minutes extended thru December 31.