When Minneapolis native Erica Yayra Nego won the Miss Ghana title in 2011, it touched off a global debate on colorism, or prejudice based on shades of skin color.
The controversy comes home on Saturday. That’s when the Jungle Theater opens “School Girls, Or: The African Mean Girls Play,” a comedy inspired by the 2011 Miss Ghana contest.
The Ghana part of the story stuck in the mind of New York playwright Jocelyn Bioh, whose parents grew up in the African nation. Bioh was already toying with writing about the hierarchy of Ghana’s all-girl boarding schools, based on all her mother’s tales. After reading a newspaper story about Nego, Bioh wondered if she could combine the two for a fictional narrative.
“It was a big scandal because she is American-born and she’s biracial,” Bioh recalled. “The idea was: Who is she to win Miss Ghana, because she was both lighter-skinned and biracial? It seemed like pageant officials were thinking they had a more competitive candidate [to advance to compete for Miss Universe] if they chose someone who was lighter-skinned. I was fascinated by that, so I started writing and, 27 drafts later, ‘School Girls, Or: The African Mean Girls Play’ was born.”
Twin Cities theater artist Shá Cage, who directs the Jungle production, read those stories, too. It was the Minnesota connection that sucked her in.
“I had read about Jocelyn’s impetus for the story, this controversy around the biracial Miss Ghana and whether she was really African since she didn’t grow up in Africa and they were supposedly unable to link her father to any specific region. And she was from Minnesota,” Cage said.
“My radar went off right away. Colorism is an issue that not just our community here but every community is dealing with.”
‘Owning my self-worth’
Although “School Girls” was inspired by actual events and is very much a comedy, it’s also personal for Bioh. Colorism is “something I’ve dealt with as a performer and as a human being,” said Bioh, who’s also an actor who appeared on Broadway in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and starred in the original off-Broadway cast of “An Octoroon.” “I’m the child of two Ghana immigrants and I am a dark-skinned woman.
“I wanted to try to describe the insecurity of not seeing beauty in yourself because you don’t see examples of people who look like you and who are regarded as beautiful,” added Bioh, who landed writing gigs for the TV series “Russian Doll” and “She’s Gotta Have It” based on the success of 2017’s “School Girls.” “It’s personal because I had to reckon with my truest feelings about my journey to owning my self-worth. If the play can help people skip some of the embarrassing amount of time it took me to get over that, I would love it. I’d love it if it could be healing for other women who have felt that insecurity.”
Cage said she was fortunate “to be raised by some of the strongest women in the world, who helped me at a very young age know I was one of the most beautiful kids in the world.” That helped her avoid some of those worries about skin color and full features.
“I learned to appreciate the skin we are born in, but does that mean along the way I avoided many occurrences of I-wish-I-weres? No. I did that, wishing I was taller or darker or my hair was a little longer,” Cage said. “That’s what society teaches us.”
With rival beauty pageant contestants attending the same Ghanaian boarding school, “School Girls” calls for very specific casting.
“The young girl who comes to the boarding school to shake things up is a light-skinned black girl,” Cage said. “If we went against that, we would be telling a different story. The play is crystal-clear about what the issues are. We could talk all day about skin color and hair type and body type and all the ways society has set up systems to create an us/them complex between women.”
Bioh and Cage are both confident that women will relate to this fictionalized account of the Miss Ghana contest, which the playwright shifted from 2011 to 1985. But these sorts of divisions come up for men, too, as demonstrated by the current controversy about whether Will Smith’s skin tone qualifies him to play the father of Venus and Serena Williams in an upcoming biopic.
‘A funny way of being serious’
In rehearsals for “School Girls,” one of the first things Cage did was assign beauty journals to her actors, who have a variety of skin tones but are mostly first-generation Americans.
“I really wanted us to dig back and ask questions we may have forgotten about,” Cage said. “What was the first time somebody made you aware of your beauty or a dominant feature of the way you look? Who falls on your list of the most beautiful women? What was it like when you were a little girl and looked in the mirror?”
Those are exactly the questions Bioh strove to raise with her play. But she’s quick to point out that “School Girls, Or: The African Mean Girls Play” is also funny, as the subtitle suggests. In fact, Bioh has always gravitated to comedy as a theater artist. Same deal as a writer. She recalled writing a drama so serious that she warned the audience before a reading that they were about to encounter a big, tragic change of pace. Then came the gales of laughter, which only convinced her: “Oh. It’s a comedy.”
Part of the humor in “School Girls” comes from the absurdity of obsessing over looks. Part of it comes from a conviction that Bioh came to as she studied theater a decade ago.
“I always say comedy is just a funny way of being serious,” she said. “I think you get a lot of mileage out of inviting an audience into a space where they feel like they’ll be taken care of and have a good time and laugh and then you sucker-punch them with some hard truths. I think the message can seep in, in a deeper way.”
As a community organizer as well as an artist, Cage was thrilled to help create opportunities for women who brought Senegalese, Nigerian, Somali, Liberian and Jamaican heritages to the rehearsal room. That melting pot meant the cast connected with “School Girls” in a variety of ways.
Cage is looking forward to seeing them action.
“The play is fun,” the director said. “It reminds us we have to laugh at the ridiculousness around beauty. It creates a lot of space for gut-wrenching laughter, not just a giggle or a snicker. I love that the playwright was able to create that space for us in which to think about these complex issues.”