'School Girls': Beyond skin deep
In a play filled with both humor and seriousness, Portland Center Stage and Artists Repertory Theatre collaborate for the first time on Jocelyn Bioh's breakout hit "School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play," starting with previews Saturday, Jan. 18 at The Armory.
Much like the 2004 movie "Mean Girls," starring Lindsay Lohan, the play tackles cliques and differences among teenage girls — only "School Girls" goes one step further and explores the concept of colorism, or discrimination, usually by members of the same race, based on the shade of one's skin. The play is based on experiences by Bioh's mother in a boarding school in Ghana and Bioh herself in a boarding school in Pennsylvania.
"School Girls" stars Andrea Vernae as Paulina Sarpong, the reigning Queen Bee at Ghana's most exclusive boarding school who wants to win the Miss Universe pageant, a prospect threatened with the arrival of American Ericka Boafo from Ohio, played by Morgan Walker, who has talent and beauty — and lighter skin.
The New York Times called Bioh's biting play "a gleeful African makeover of an American genre."
The play was inspired by Bioh's real-life experiences and a Miss Ghana pageant several years ago, at which representatives selected a winner who was not born in Ghana and had lighter skin. Bioh gave a nod to the movie "Mean Girls" because the two stories share the universal theme of teenage relationships.
"That's what I love about the play — it packages the seriousness of talking about such a tense topic (colorism) with humor," Vernae said.
"It's very much a universal story. People know the experience; what it is to be in a high school setting, and different levels of status, and where you fit in that place."
Said Walker: "This show was cast extremely well, and we connect to our characters ... it goes to realness and heartbreak and it's cut with comedy to make for a bite-size look into this world."
Lava Alapai directs the play, which Portland Center Stage and Artists Repertory Theatre have collaborated on, partly because Artists Rep is spending the season putting on plays at other venues due to construction at its own site.
Bioh says it's a fun lifestyle look at African teenage life, and not the prevalent tales of "extreme poverty, struggle, strife, disease and war." She added: "It has always been my goal to present the Africa I know and love so dearly."
The two primary actors, Vernae and Walker, are 20-somethings who recall their own teenage years. Both say they weren't of the "Mean Girls" clique. Rather, Vernae, who's from Miami, said she was a follower who provided comic relief (she wasn't the Paulina type), and Walker, who's from Kansas City, said she "floated from group to group. I was in marching band and theater and took dance classes. I was a big nerd."
Vernae said the Paulina role was hard for her. "I'm not a mean person at all. Mean is a defensive mechanism for how people handle things, how they go through the world. I'm nice, so I had to dig into different parts of myself."
She does, however, have some deep thoughts about the premise of "School Girls" — colorism, and how individuals view one another, often based on skin color.
"This involves a larger conversation, and it's not something inflicted upon ourselves," she said. "It's something ingrained in us because of racism, the color branch of racism and the racism branch of white supremacy."
Walker, being the lighter-skinned person, concurred.
"Colorism is a real thing," she said. "It has lived in all of us people of color. It feels like microaggression. Somebody coined the term and gave it a definition. It's not something that we really get to decide about."
She understands that colorism plays a role in society, including for her. Walker talks about how she has been offered roles for Hispanic shows as a light-skinned character or even passing as white.
"I have to take it upon myself to make sure I'm not adding to the problem of colorism," she added. "It's not a role I need to be taking. In the work field we need to be better about policing ourselves, making sure roles are going to be for the best person telling the story."
The brilliance of Bioh's play is that it portrays the subject in a serious but delightful manner.
Casting does have a bit of a twist, as Vernae has worked with Portland Center Stage before in "Redwood" and Artists Rep in "Everybody." She's a resident artist with Artists Rep. Walker is making her debut with the companies, but she played in "School Girls" for Kansas City Repertory Theatre, where current PCS artistic director Marissa Wolf and associate producer Chip Miller worked before.
"We have our sort of 'Mean Girls'/nice girl chemistry on stage, but off stage we're best friends now," Walker said. "I'm very much the new girl in this cast, and everybody's been sweet and welcoming."
Vernae and Walker said they hope that "School Girls" serves as education for some about colorism.
"We hope everyone can empathize with these young girls and their need to fit in and belong," Walker said. "Theater is created for everyone to get different perspectives."
"School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play" stages at The Armory, 128 N.W. 11th Ave., Jan. 18 to Feb. 16; opening night is Jan. 24. For tickets ($25-$87), see www.pcs.org.
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