So many believe that we are independent actors, doing things of our own free will. We write our own stories, rather than playing roles authored by others.
But sometimes things happen to chill our ardor. Sometimes events show us the world as it is — not as we pray fervently for it to be. Perhaps it’s a social slight experienced at a public event, knocking one off balance. Or it could be that something one believed was fair and merit-based — say, college admissions — was not what it appeared.
In Jocelyn Bioh’s “School Girls: Or, the African Mean Girls Play,” which made its stellar regional premiere over the weekend at the Jungle Theater, the upset comes around an international beauty pageant watched by teenagers at an elite boarding school in Ghana.
As they sit in front of a TV, taking in proceedings that some find demeaning while others see an avenue for advancement, the young women radiate a range of facial expressions. Some students go so far as to pin their hopes for a bigger destiny on the pageant. The TV serves as both the mode of news delivery and as impassive, unfeeling witness to their statuses. This is the moment they realize they are pawns in a bigger story not of their own writing. As for the standards they hoped would validate them as people, they’re not what they appeared to be.
Director Shá Cage’s production, set in a colonial schoolhouse designed by Seitu Jones and Bianca Janine Pettis, offers plenty of sweetness to leaven the work’s devastating realizations. “School Girls” initially comes off as a play about high school social hierarchy. A popular girl (played by Ashe Jaafaru) is the keeper of the social rank in the school run by a stern headmistress (Ivory Doublette). All her friends (Aishé Keita, Nimene Sierra Wureh, Salome Mergia and Kiara Jackson) readily bow to her. But things change when an American-Ghanaian (Eponine Diatta) arrives.
On its face, “School Girls” is a play about colorism among blacks. But it’s also about global beauty standards — and how those setting the standards have managed to negate an entire continent.
Cage has infused this 70-minute one-act with verve and African style. It’s in the movement of the performers. It’s in the interstitial music and the ethos. Everything flows with musicality and light, honoring Bioh’s witty and humorous writing.
And the performances are authentic and infused with joy, even though it all ends in devastation.
A special shout-out to Jaafaru, who slays as the anti-hero. She’s crisp and clear, ultimately deserving her comeuppance. But we feel for her in a show where a group of students each play their part, coming to realize they’re playing bit parts, mere spectators to the larger global narrative.
It is a powerful work about the shattering of dreams.