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Brisk, Funny ‘Mean Girls’ Tackles Skin Color

Opinionated Judge by Darleen Ortega

Darleen Ortega | 1/28/2020, 12:39 p.m.
What makes teenagers so exasperating to live with, and such fascinating story subjects, is that they reflect back to us ...
Paulina’s (Andrea Vernae, right) dreams of winning a teenage beauty pageant in Ghana is threatened by the arrival of Ericka (Morgan Walker) a new student with undeniable talent, beauty… and lighter skin in ‘School Girls’ or, The African Mean Girls Play,’ now playing through Feb. 16 at Portland Center Stage at the Armory. Photo by Russell J. Young/Portland Center Stage at the Armory

What makes teenagers so exasperating to live with, and such fascinating story subjects, is that they reflect back to us what we least like to see in ourselves. For teenagers--perhaps particularly teenage girls--the stakes of each interaction feel heightened, and they haven't yet learned how (and see no reason) to hide or dress up or tone down their worst impulses.

In "School Girls: or, The African Mean Girls Play," now on stage at the Armory in a co-production of Portland Center Stage and Artists Repertory Theater, teenage girls at a boarding school in Ghana fight to the death over who is prettiest and most worldly and who has the best shot as a contestant in the Miss Ghana pageant. The stakes are high--and white supremacy makes them more surmountable, even for a group of African girls.

Playwright Jocelyn Bioh plays this context for broad laughs, and teenage girls the world over are indeed funny; for these African teenagers in 1986, "The Baby-Sitters Club" can be "really powerful stuff" and one can dream of visiting an American White Castle ("a castle with food!"). In other hands, this material would feel exploitive, but it helps that Bioh's own parents immigrated to the U.S. from Ghana in 1968, and that she is motivated in part by a clear intention around presenting African stories that move us beyond the crude poverty porn that characterizes most of our collective image of the African continent. The laughs here are affectionate, and reflect some important insider understanding about what it is like to live female inside of dark skin.

The story revolves around a pack of girls who jockey for in-group status at a Ghanaian boarding school. The leader of the pack is, unmistakably, Paulina (Andrea Vernae, taut with furious energy), who relentlessly asserts her dominance with endless corrections of the girls who vie for her approval. There is no question in anyone's mind that she has the only real shot at winning the pageant -- with its rumored promise of a potential date with Bobby Brown! -- until a new girl, Ericka (a lovely Morgan Walker) arrives from the U.S. She is kind, eager to make friends, and well-endowed with American beauty products, knowledge of American culture, and light skin that is naturally hers and not just a sign of better whitening products. ("Wow! You really are blessed!" one of the girls exclaims, to Paulina's evident horror.)

Tonea Lolin, Kayla Kelly and Andrea Vernae perform as teenage girls who fight over who is prettiest, most worldly and who has the best shot as a contestant in the Miss Ghana pageant in ‘School Girls’ or, 'The African Mean Girls Play.’

Tonea Lolin, Kayla Kelly and Andrea Vernae perform as teenage girls who fight over who is prettiest, most worldly and who has the best shot as a contestant in the Miss Ghana pageant in ‘School Girls’ or, 'The African Mean Girls Play.’

Even the two adults in the picture--the school's beleaguered headmistress, Frances (Kisha Jarrett), and her own former rival, the visiting pageant representative Eloise (Sara Williams), who finds a way to mention in nearly every sentence that she was Miss Ghana 1966--embody the essential conflict that these women carry in their bodies. Although Frances urges all the girls to audition for the pageant, to Frances, Paulina is the only real contender; she is driven, deserving, and embodies a truly Ghanaian standard of beauty. As Paulina gloats to the girls, "Headmistress likes to make everyone feel like they have a fair chance, but we all know I'm the best." But once the ambitious and practical Eloise lays eyes on Ericka, she sees the promise of a real shot; Ericka, with her pale skin and more European features, is what the judges like to see: "girls who have a more universal and commercial look."

In this brisk and funny play, it's a small but powerful point: even in Ghana, one's proximity to whiteness is what determines one's value. And even though the play isn't subtle and packages its truth in buoyant humor, the point, which too few audience members will have even begun to interrogate, is well made. Colorism operates relentlessly no matter where you are.

This production benefits from a uniformly solid cast that lives the jokes and nervous energy and hints of underlying sorrow in their bodies. These women know the power of this material and carry it in every muscle and pore. Each is funny and beautiful in her own way, and each (including Taylor) fails to measure up to the impossible standard of whiteness. And the show is buoyed by Wanda Walden's spot-on costumes, which comically express the inherent humor in African girls aspiring to 1980s American pop culture, which is itself somehow inherently and comically aspirational.

Bioh's play feels too short; I wish she had carried her very good idea a bit deeper. But spending a brisk 80 minutes with these splendid women is too precious an opportunity to miss. The production runs through Feb. 16.

Darleen Ortega is a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the first woman of color to serve in that capacity. Her movie and theater review column Opinionated Judge appears regularly in The Portland Observer. Find her review blog at opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com.