The reach of American culture may be wide, but it is not always as profound as Americans might hope. At a girls’ boarding school in Africa, dreams are built on the backs of whatever Western brands the students have heard of. Walmart and White Castle (“a castle with food!”) are just as good grist for the fantasy mill as a “Calvin Klean” dress to wear to the dance.
And so it is for theater. “School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play,” which opened on Thursday evening in an MCC Theater production, is a comedy built on borrowed templates: not just “Mean Girls,” as the subtitle admits, but also a whole genre of clique-bait movies including “Heathers,” “Jawbreaker” and “Legally Blonde.”
But something fascinating happens when the author, Jocelyn Bioh, a New York playwright and actor, applies those templates to the world of her parents, who emigrated from Ghana in 1968. The nasty-teen comedy genre emerges wonderfully refreshed and even deepened by its immersion in a world it never considered.
The outline of “School Girls,” gleefully directed by Rebecca Taichman at the Lucille Lortel Theater, will seem both familiar and not. Paulina (MaameYaa Boafo) is the haughty queen bee of a fictional in-group at Aburi Girls’ Senior High School, a real institution in southeastern Ghana. (Ms. Bioh’s mother was a student there, and apparently something of a mean girl herself.)
Styling herself as a woman of the world, Paulina rules with both favors and cruelty. “Are you determined to look like a cow?” she asks one of her underlings, a girl named Nana who swallows the insult along with the rolls she hides in her gingham uniform. The other girls, who depend on Paulina for status, giggle — and later, in private, apologize.
The particular insult is no accident; looks are key to a story set in motion by the arrival at Aburi of a recruiter for the Miss Ghana beauty pageant. Paulina assumes she will be selected as the local contestant, and that a glamorous life will quickly follow, including a date with Bobby Brown. (The play is set in 1986.) Though she permits the other girls to compete, it is only to set off her greater charms.