School Girls: Or, The African Mean Girls Play

May 23, 2019

in Plays

Play (2017)
by Jocelyn Bioh

Directed by Summer L. Williams

Speakeasy Stage Company
Boston Center for the Arts
South End, Boston
May 3-25, 2019

With Ireon Roach (Paulina Sarpong), Tenneh Sillah (Mercy), Shanelle Chloe Villegas (Nana), Geraldine Bogard (Gifty), Sabrina Victor (Ama), Crystin Gilmore (Headmistress Francis), Victoria Byrd (Cricka Boafo), Kris Sidberry (Eloise Amponsah)

School girls

Sabrina Victor as Ama
Tenneh Sallah as Mercy
Geraldine Bogard as Gifty
Shanelle Chloe Villegas as Nana
Ireon Roach as Paulina
Photo: Maggie Hall Photography
Courtesy of Speakeasy Stage Company

A sweet and funny play about viciously competitive Ugandan school girls.

Paulina (Ireon Roach) is the leader of the pack. It’s a small pack of teenage girls at a Ugandan boarding school, but she wields power like a queen. She’s fierce, she’s proud, and she’s relentless in her determination to promote herself. The most promising option for great success is the Miss Uganda competition, which she is determined to win. But, a new girl, Erika (Victoria Byrd) – beautiful, talented, charming – shows up and not only threatens to take the potential title away from her, but threatens to capture her friends.

What a little barrel of wicked fun this is! Advertised as only eighty minutes long, but actually a few minutes longer than that (without intermission), this wonderful little ensemble piece pits some great characters against one another in a small but engaging plot.

Who really cares about the ego antics of a bunch of teenage girls? Remarkably, one actually does in the midst of this energetic foray into the minutae of girls’ rivalries at that stage of life. The implications for larger questions and deeper feelings are touched on, particularly at the end, and the final effect resounds rather than whimpers.

In the role as the prime little power-broker Paulina, Ireon Roach is just superb. She is nastily self-possessed and entirely convinced of her own beauty and worthiness for beauty-queendom or anything else. Roach’s posturing is exquisitely bitchy in the updraft, and resonates more deeply in the down. It’s a lovely performance.

The group of girls who hover around Paulina are a scream, ranging from the food-obsessed Nana (Shanelle Chloe Villegas) to the angular and very funny dyslexic Gifty (Geraldine Bogard), and from the more serious but boyfriended Ama (Sabrina Victor), to Mercy (Tenneh Sallah) who provides a wonderful mid-scene standup routine. At scene changes, these girls bounce off the stage and show up, hilariously, in the windows of the set doing coordinated dances. It’s so much fun.

Holding down the adult roles are Crystin Gilmore as Headmistress Francis, in a warm and dutifully administrative performance, and Kris Sidberry as the elegant former Miss Uganda Eloise Amponsah who with annoying repetition, also carried off in a very funny way, never fails to remind everyone of that moment of glory.

As the very white but still Ugandan new girl in the class, Ericka, Victoria Byrd does a lovely job and also sings a terrific solo as a Miss Uganda pre-contestant.

I don’t know who is responsible for nurturing the Ugandan accents in this production, but they seemed flawless. Utterly charming in their musicality and rhythm, these actresses make their dialogue sing as though the speech were as natural as water flowing; it’s remarkable.

Director Summer L. Williams has overseen a fine, vivid production of this small but potent play, one that speaks in short, sharp bursts of conflict and domination and submission, and yields, in the end, a quiet symphonic after-sound, a deeply reflective pause on exactly what was not said; it’s beautifully done.

– BADMan

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