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Review: School Girls; Or The African Mean Girls Play’

Updated: Nov 11, 2023

How mean can schoolgirls from a top school in 1980s Ghana be? Abena Serwaa, AKADi Magazine’s editor reviews School Girls; Or The African Mean Girls Play’ by Jocelyn Bioh

Near Hammersmith high street © AKADi Magazine

Some girls can be mean. REALLY MEAN and in ‘School Girls; Or The African Mean Girls Play’, Paulina (Tara Tijani) – the Queen B in her friendship circle - shows us the lengths to which she’s prepared to go to hold on to power.

Paulina and her crew: best friend Ama (Heather Agyepong), Mercy (Bola Akeju), Gifty (Francesca Amewudah-Rivers), and Nana (Jadesola Odunjo) attend one of Ghana’s prestigious boarding schools – Aburi Girls’ Senior High School in the Eastern Region.

Company of School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play in rehearsals at Lyric Hammersmith Theatre © Manuel Harlan

A mixture of awe and fear keeps these girls glued to Paulina but we soon find out that her position is challenged and friendship dynamics start to unravel when new girl Ericka (Anna Shaffer) arrives.

The new girl

Anna Shaffer in School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play rehearsals at Lyric Hammersmith Theatre © Manuel Harlan

Ericka is American. She’s of mixed heritage (white American and Ghanaian), and is the daughter of a well-known Ghanaian cocoa businessman. She’s self-assured, musically talented, and well-versed about 80s’ fashion, hair and beauty trends.

She has even seen R&B star Bobby Brown in concert – which Paulina’s girls are captivated by. But where does that leave Paulina and her grip on the girls?

Cultural references

Those of us familiar with Ghana, will not have missed the cultural references to the Motherland. I was feeling the nostalgia....The high-ceiling fans, ampe, the quintessentially Ghanaian way of packaging popcorn and, for former students of Aburi Girls, the familiar reference to their yellow and green uniform colours and their motto: ‘Bepow So Hann Nyame Ne Hene’ - Light on the mountain, God is king (translated by former pupil Ophelia Turkson).

L-R Anna Shaffer and Bola Akeju. School Girls Or The African Mean Girls Play © Manuel Harlan

The play is set in 1986, and on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, the play captures the trending music of the time. We have musical references to Bobby Brown in the USA, and from Ghana, Borga Highlife tunes and Yaa Amponsah riffs beautifully link the scenes together.

Channelling a convincing Ghanaian accent when you’ve not been born or raised in Ghana or constantly surrounded by those linguistic rhythms is not easy. And yet, I thought collectively, the ladies did well.

Alison A Addo in School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play rehearsals at Lyric Hammersmith Theatre © Manuel Harlan

Alison A Addo, who played ‘Headmistress Francis’ and is a fellow West Midlander, was so convincing - I struggled to tell her apart from those strict aunties that everyone has at least one of in their family.

Comedy, humour and swearing

But it wasn’t just what the cast said – it was how they said it. Hand gestures, kiss teeth moments, particular ‘mic drop’ looks resonated with me AND the audience.

American-Ghanaian Jocelyn Bioh, who wrote the play, has long discussed the power that comes from injecting humour into her plays - and ‘…African Mean Girls’ was no different.

Watching how the girls, particularly Mercy, use comedic timing and humour to convey hard-hitting themes in the play such as colourism was visceral.

Deborah Alli in School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play rehearsals at Lyric Hammersmith Theatre © Manuel Harlan

As the play develops and the arrival of Miss Ghana pageant recruiter Eloise Amponsah (Deborah Alli), adds to the play’s tension and blue language (swearing), it was interesting to learn that this aspect of the storyline was inspired by true events.

“It recapped a scandal in which an American-born biracial woman was brought from America to compete in the Miss Ghana pageant in what many people regarded as a clear sign that the Miss Ghana pageant officials thought they'd have a more competitive candidate with someone who had lighter skin,” Jocelyn said.

Her name was Yayra Erica Nego, a Minneapolis-born mixed race woman of Ghanaian heritage who was crowned Miss Ghana in 2011.

“I thought the whole story was so fascinating and considering my deep journey to owning my own beauty as a dark-skinned woman, I thought centering a pageant in a play would work to easily tell a story about colorism,” said Jocelyn. “Next thing I knew, I was writing a scene about a group of girls and in a couple of weeks, it turned into the first draft of "School Girls...."

My verdict

Jocelyn has previously said that she had wanted to write about her experiences of boarding school, having gone to one in the USA, while her mother attended the infamous Aburi Girls in the 60s.

For me, the play was less about what life in Ghana’s Aburi Girls School was like and more about the universal themes of friendship, girlhood, Black Girl joy and the pervasive and intergenerational grip that colourism continues to have on our communities.

We follow the girls on their varying journeys to self-love and self-acceptance. ‘…African Mean Girls’ challenges Black girl stereotypes by showing how multi-layered and complex we all can be. I saw aspects of myself in each of the character and it was a joy to see these accomplished actors reflect that in breadth and range of their performances.

Standout performances for me came from Jadesola who made her theatre debut in this play. I have to say that the first time I watched the play (I’ve seen it twice), I had a lump in my throat and I was seriously tearing up when Nana fought back tears and stood up to her bully.

Jadesola Odunjo in School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play rehearsals at Lyric Hammersmith Theatre ©Manuel Harlan

It was a joy to watch her tap into such raw emotions and speak to all those girls that were bullied or ostracised because they were different.

Thanks to Lyric Hammersmith, we got to speak to Jadesola days before the play hit the theatre. Take a listen here.

The ladies were phenomenal and it was a real pleasure to experience such an immersive performance where being Ghanaian/African/Black was celebrated. It was powerful.

Having a play where the writer, directors, cast and many of those behind the scenes look like me was edifying. To be part of a play where our ways of life, our cultures and our language/ slangs require no explanation was an unspeakably delicious feeling.

Like others next to me, I was whooping, clapping, and laughing and even vocally signalling my approval or disapproval when scenes in the play resonated with us. I was tapping my feet to the pre-play Borga tunes and the music during the performance which graduated into full-on dancing when I could not hold the Highlife in any longer. I was talking to strangers in the auditorium and feeling a part of something that was bigger than just a play - slice of history.

They say we don’t go to the theatre enough. If all plays were like this one, I’m convinced we would.

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