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Skin tone, privilege color the teen popularity contest in Goodman’s snarky ‘School Girls’

Set in Ghana, the viciously funny comedy is guaranteed to tickle and trigger anyone with less-than-stellar high school memories.

Kyrie Courter (Ericka Boafo) and Ciera Dawn (Paulina Sarpong) in School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play by Jocelyn Bioh, directed by Lili-Anne Brown at Goodman Theatre (July 30-August 29, 2021). Photo by Flint Chaney. 
Kyrie Courter (left) stars as Ericka and Ciera Dawn stars as Paulina in the Goodman Theatre production of “School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play.”
Flint Chaney

Of all the mean people in the world — and unfortunately there are many — none are more infamous than “mean girls,” and their unique style of brutal high-school bullying and cruelty that was crystallized into common parlance by the 2004 movie “Mean Girls.” Lest we think that mean girls are only an American phenomenon, “School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play” snarks its way back onto the Goodman Theatre stage to disabuse us of that notion.

After debuting the play in March 2020 and almost immediately closing it during COVID-19 mandated shutdowns, Goodman pivoted and offered a streaming version through May 2020. Now the production is back on the stage, with in-person audiences fully masked, leading Chicago theater into a game of chicken with the Delta variant that hopefully will not prove to be as thrilling as the onstage drama.

Set in Ghana, and written by Jocelyn Bioh, a native Ghanaian, the play follows a cohort of friends (or frenemies, depending on your POV) who are vying for the top spot in the Miss Ghana Pageant. When a new student enters the fray, the stakes are raised and metaphorical wigs are snatched in a viciously funny ride, guaranteed to tickle and trigger anyone with less-than-stellar high school memories of trying and failing to fit in.

One of the things that “School Girls” does so well is address themes of individuality and conformity through the lens of colorism, and director Lili-Anne Brown does an excellent job of not allowing the comedy and cruelty of the teenage antics to overshadow the humanity of being young, vulnerable and insecure about one’s self-image. Ciera Dawn and Kylie Courter are the spectacular engines of the show, going head to head as Paulina Sarpong and Ericka Boafo, respectively, the most popular girl at school and the new challenger for top spot.

Paulina (Ciera Dawn, left) is confronted by ex-beauty queen Eloise (Lanise Antoine Shelley) in a scene from  the Goodman Theatre’s production of Jocelyn Bioh’s “School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play.”
Paulina (Ciera Dawn, left) is confronted by ex-beauty queen Eloise (Lanise Antoine Shelley) in a scene from the Goodman Theatre’s production of Jocelyn Bioh’s “School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play.”
Flint Chaney

Ericka and her light skin can’t help but to stand out no matter how desperately she wants to fit in and avoid making waves, delivering a deft illustration of the way that privilege overrides good intent. Conversely, Paulina gradually discovers that her dark skin will serve as an insurmountable hurdle, no matter how much she is able to excel, bootstrap, beautify, scheme, or bully. Watching the invisible, automatic hands of privilege and class shove the young women into preordained slots is a sobering meditation on fate vs. free will wrapped in candy coating. Dawn is electrifying, surfing Paulina’s emotional waves of youthful arrogance, weathering the inevitable crash, and by the righteous indignation and fury of injustice that threatens to eat one alive from the inside.

Lanise Antoine Shelley is an absolute hoot as the extravagant ex-beauty queen Eloise Amponsah, bringing comic relief and a poignant window into internalized racism and the way that the legacy of generational trauma is perpetuated. Tania Richard is a perfect wholesome foil for Eloise’s extravagance as Headmistress Francis, grounding the story in hopefulness. The ensemble cast jells together fabulously and is truly a joy to watch. Ashley Crowe (Nana), Tiffany Renee Johnson (Mercy) and Adana Reid (Ama) flock together around the stage like perky seagulls, and Adia Alli (Gifty) steals every single scene she is in as the bubbly, down-but-never-out friend.

The artful set by Yu Shibagaki is captivating: a gorgeous, two-tiered, open-latticework fence draws the eye in and interplays exquisitely with the subtle work of lighting designer Jason Lynch that hints of a much larger world just beyond, but always out of reach. A simple, long, wooden table with the word “ABUGISS” stenciled on the side provides a focal point and perhaps reveals a nod to history. ”ABUGISS” is the nickname of a boarding school in East Ghana that had only seven students when it was established in 1946. (Bioh has mentioned in interviews that the play was inspired by events in her mother’s life.)

At a tight 80 minutes, “School Girls” may leave you wanting much more of these rich characters. Audience members of a certain age will especially enjoy the ’80s references and songs peppered throughout, the sequined selections by costume designer Samantha C. Jones, and the classic hip-hop dance moves combined with African dances. “School Girls” delivers nonstop belly laughs along with a heaping helping of heart, and is a must-see for school girls, mean girls, and all people, mean, kind and otherwise, everywhere.

Sheri Flanders is a local freelance writer.