School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play
Sometimes the Queen Bee gets stung!
January 18 – February 16, 2020
Paulina, the reigning Queen Bee at Ghana's most exclusive boarding school, has her sights set on the Miss Ghana pageant. But the arrival of Ericka (a new student with undeniable talent, beauty, and light skin) captures the attention of the pageant recruiter — and nearly topples the social order of Paulina’s hive-minded friends. Jocelyn Bioh's biting comedy explores the challenges facing teenage girls across the globe and cautions that while beauty may be only skin deep, its pursuit can cut much deeper.
A co-production with Artists Repertory Theatre.
“A gleeful African makeover of an American genre.”
- The New York Times
School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play Plot Synopsis
Please note, this synopsis contains spoilers.
Welcome to Aburi boarding school in central Ghana. It’s 1986, and a squad of the most popular girls reigns over the school community while preparing to compete in the Miss Ghana beauty pageant.
They’re that crew — every school has one — the students who use popularity, gossip, and manipulation to exert and maintain power over their less popular classmates. We meet their leader, the Queen Bee Paulina, a domineering alpha who will stop at nothing to become Miss Ghana.
Paulina is flanked by the smart and outspoken Ama, and Nana, the sweet and sensitive one whose love of food makes her an easy target for Paulina’s criticisms. Then there’s Mercy and Gifty, best friends who will do anything Paulina commands as long as it means they get to be members of the cool girls’ club. We learn quickly that while Paulina has the school under her thumb, she is not without enemies, even within her own circle of friends. And then there’s Headmistress Francis, who loves all the girls but is constantly exasperated with the work of reining in their schemes and antics.
The arrival of two strangers to Aburi throws the community into chaos. There’s Eloise Amponsah, a former Miss Ghana and Aburi alum who now recruits young ladies for pageant competitions, and Ericka Boafo, the new transfer student, who is a biracial young woman of Ghanaian descent from the United States. Ericka is wealthy, well-spoken, and much to Paulina’s dismay, was born with a far lighter skin tone.
Eloise soon shifts her attention from Paulina to Ericka as the top contender for the pageant, and the politics of colorism adds another layer to the complex relationships between the students.
As Paulina’s subordinates begin to drift away from her in favor of Ericka’s kinder nature and great stories, Paulina sets a plan in motion to maintain her throne, including going to dangerous lengths to lighten her skin. As her plans backfire, all the girls’ secrets and lies are revealed and they are forced to be honest with each other for the first time. While the girls make some headway toward reconciliation, Eloise returns and names Ericka her chosen contestant. Eloise makes it clear that she’s willing to bend or break the rules find a winning contestant, and despite objections from Headmistress Francis and the rest of the students, Ericka goes off to compete for Miss Ghana.
In a final scene, the girls watc the Miss Universe pageant on television. Ericka has won Miss Ghana and is competing on the global stage. Paulina, devastated from losing, has gone through some very difficult times, and the rest of the girls have done some growing up of their own. The mood at Aburi has changed since the play began, and the squad’s bonds are looser and tinged with wistfulness. The pageant begins, and the school girls are desperately hoping this is the year a Ghanaian woman will take the crown. In the end, Ericka does not even place in the top 10 finalists. The shocked girls are left to contemplate their own sense of invisibility as African women and the daunting challenge of keeping their dreams aloft even when the world stands ready to knock them down.
We asked members of the cast and the director if they would share some thoughts and experiences with colorism in their own lives. Here are a selection of their responses.
Explore the play through the perspective of playwright Jocelyn Bioh.
Read about the Ghanaian influences on our specialty cocktails for School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play. Plus, we include a recipe so you can try making one at home!
Calling all readers! Multnomah County Library put together a reading list inspired by our production of School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play. From colorism, to African art and culture, to body-image issues and universal teen girl angst, the books on this list further explore themes related to the play.
School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play
Written By Jocelyn Bioh
Directed by Lava Alapai
|Kisha Jarrett||Headmistress Francis|
|Andrea Vernae*||Paulina Sarpong|
|Morgan Walker*||Ericka Boafo|
|Sara Williams*||Eloise Amponsah|
*Member of Actors’ Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.
|Lex Marcos||Scenic Designer|
|Wanda Walden||Costume Designer|
|Marika Kent||Lighting Designer|
|Phil Johnson||Sound Designer|
|Yetunde Felix-Ukwu||Dialect Coach|
|Kristen Mun*||Stage Manager|
|Macarena Subiabre||Production Assistant|
|Vonessa Martin & Chip Miller||Casting|
*Member of Actors’ Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.
Meet the Cast
Kisha is the audience development and marketing director at Artists Repertory Theatre as well as a writer, actor, musician, director, and storyteller. Born and raised in Virginia, she has lived all over the country (as well as in Barcelona and London) but now calls Portland home. She has performed for both stage and screen, been a musician at South by Southwest Music Festival, and designed costumes for stage and screen. While she was living in New York, she owned a bakery called Painted Lady Cakes. As a storyteller, she has performed for The Moth (2017 and 2018 GrandSLAM winner), Back Fence PDX, 7 Deadly Sins, Wildfang, and more. Currently, she is working on her second feature-length screenplay and writing her first novel.
Kayla is so excited and grateful to be making her debut at Portland Center Stage at The Armory. Kayla is from Houston, Texas, and holds a Bachelor of Arts from Stephen F. Austin State University. After graduating from college, she joined Portland Playhouse as an apprentice. Previous credits include Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (Company of Fools), Peter/Wendy (Bag & Baggage), The Killing Fields (Orphic), Romeo and Juliet (Portland Actors Ensemble), Mme. Dudley in the original cast of Scarlet and A Christmas Carol (Portland Playhouse). Kayla enjoys dabbling in stand-up comedy, writing, and finding creation in everyday life. Thank you to my mom and dad, anyone who has ever believed in me, and everyone who has made this production possible. Representation truly matters!
Tonea is thrilled to be making her Portland Center Stage at The Armory debut. Originally from San Diego, California, she fell in love with performing at age 12. She graduated with a B.F.A. in acting and a B.A. in linguistics from University of California Santa Barbara. Favorite credits include: The Lady of Intoxicating Romance in Made to Dance in Burning Buildings (Shaking the Tree Theatre), ensemble in Éxodo (Milagro Theatre), Sneezy in Snow White (Broadway Rose Theatre Company), and Venus in Venus (UCSB). She thanks her family and friends for their love and support in her artistic journey. This story and its message is so important for black women of all hues. Thanks to the cast and crew for this wonderful experience! Keep up with her next adventures on Instagram @thetoneajuanita
Treasure is absolutely thrilled to be returning to Portland Center stage at The Armory for Schoolgirls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play. Recent credits include The Most Massive Woman Wins (Deep End Theater), Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (The Armory), and The Lunchroom for Hear Our Voices: A Staged Reading presented by Advance Gender Equity in the Arts. They are further delighted to be returning to The Armory later this season for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Treasure is grateful to be a part of bringing this extremely important and extremely hilarious work to The Armory along with the rest of the amazing and talented cast and crew.
Tamera is grateful to have this phenomenal experience, which marks her Portland Center Stage at The Armory debut! She was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, studied theater performance at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, and moved to Portland to develop her craft with Portland Playhouse as an apprentice. She performed in Skeleton Crew, the world premiere of Wolf Play (Artists Repertory Theatre), In The Wake (Profile Theatre), and Bakkhai (Shaking The Tree Theatre). Tamera has also done filmmaking work in Portland with NW Documentary and Open Signal Labs. She produces her visual work with Sunflower Creations, a production vessel she created as an undergrad. Tamera has created Wilted Flowers, Close Your Eyes, Road 35, and others. Watch her bloom at tameralyn.com. peace + blessings
Andrea is excited to return to be a part of Portland Center Stage at The Armory, following her recent debut in Redwood. Her favorite credits include: The Wolves at Portland Playhouse; JUMP, a co-production with Confrontation Theatre and Milagro Theatre; Pen/Man/Ship at Portland Playhouse; and Everybody at Artists Repertory Theatre, where she is also a resident artist. This performance is dedicated to her family and to every brown skin girl who ever thought of herself as less than because of her complexion. This performance is for you. You are beautiful.
Morgan is a New York-based actor making her debut at Portland Center Stage at The Armory. Regional credits: School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play (Kansas City Repertory Theatre); Beehive: The ’60s Musical, Cinderella, The Game’s Afoot, The Sound of Music (Okoboji Summer Theatre); Show Boat, Cats, A Spectacular Christmas Show, Into the Woods (Musical Theater Heritage); Footloose (Starlight Theatre); Once On This Island (Spinning Tree Theatre). Education: B.F.A. in musical theater, Stephens College. Instagram: @reklawnagrom. AEA member.
Sara is a proud graduate of The School at Steppenwolf ensemble training program and has completed extensive First Folio training with Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Select Chicago credits include: Best of Enemies (Artists’ Ensemble Theater), Hamlet and Coriolanus (The Shakespeare Project of Chicago). Select Pittsburgh credits include: Girls Only — The Secret Comedy of Women (Pittsburgh CLO), Belfast Girls (Ghostlight Theatre Troupe), 1984 (Bricolage Production Company), Afternoon of the Elves (Playhouse Jr.), The Alchemists’ Lab (Pittsburgh Playhouse), Phaedra (Point Park University), and The Legend of Georgia McBride (Barebones Productions). Sara has also developed a number of new works with the City Theatre Company of Pittsburgh, including Amerkin by Chisa Hutchinson and Wade by Isaac Gomez. Commercially, she has worked on campaigns for the NFL, Fisher Price, Spirit Airlines, and RCN Cable. S/o to Stewart Talent.
Meet the Creative Team
Jocelyn Bioh, Playwright
Jocelyn Bioh is an award-winning Ghanaian-American writer and performer from New York City. Her plays include School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play (The Kilroys’ List, 2016; Center Theatre Group; MCC Theater; Lucille Lortel Award; OCC John Gardner Award; Hull-Warriner Award; Drama Desk nomination; Drama League nomination; Off-Broadway Alliance nomination), Nollywood Dreams (Cherry Lane Theatre Mentor Project, 2017; The Kilroys’ List, 2015), and African Americans (produced at Howard University, 2015; Southern Rep Theatre Ruby Prize Award finalist, 2011; O'Neill Theater Center semifinalist, 2012). Jocelyn conceived and wrote the libretto for The Ladykiller’s Love Story (music and lyrics by CeeLo Green) and Goddess (book writer). She has also been a staff writer for the Netflix TV shows Russian Doll and Spike Lee’s She's Gotta Have It. Jocelyn received her M.F.A. in theater/playwriting from Columbia University. She is under commission with Manhattan Theatre Club, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Second Stage Theater, and Atlantic Theater Company, and is a resident playwright at LCT3. As an actress, Jocelyn's credits include: In the Blood (Signature Theatre; Drama Desk nomination, Best Featured Actress), Everybody (Signature Theatre; Lucille Lortel Award nomination, Best Supporting Actress, 2017), Men on Boats (Clubbed Thumb at Playwrights Horizons), The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Broadway; Tony Award-winner for Best Play, 2015), An Octoroon (Soho Rep; Obie Award-winner for Best Play, 2014), Booty Candy (Wilma Theater), Seed (The Classical Theatre of Harlem; AUDELCO Award nominee), and Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet (City Theatre Company). She also originated the role of Topsy in the world premiere of Neighbors (The Public Theater; AUDELCO Award nominee). Film/TV acting credits include: Ben is Back (Black Bear Pictures), Russian Doll (Netflix) Blue Bloods (CBS), The Detour (TBS), The Characters (Netflix), Louie (FX), and One Life to Live (ABC).
Lava Alapai, Director
Lava is so happy to be directing her first show at Portland Center Stage at The Armory! She has been creating theater in Portland for over a decade. Some of her recent directing credits include Is God Is for Washington Ensemble Theatre; The Revolutionists and An Octoroon (co-direction) for Artists Repertory Theatre (Resident Artist); Columbinus, Charlotte's Web, and Locomotion for Oregon Children's Theatre. She is a proud member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC). She would like to thank the amazing team and beautiful cast for giving her the opportunity to spend this time with them, and her wife, Alex, for supporting her always.
Lex Marcos, Scenic Designer
Lex is based in Seattle and originally from Manila, in the Philippines. He studied painting and art history at the University of the Philippines, Diliman. He designed sets in Manila for nine years. In 2017, he got his M.F.A. in scenic design at the University of Washington School of Drama. He has designed shows for ArtsWest, Intiman Theatre, Sound Theatre Company, and Washington Ensemble Theatre, and will design an upcoming show for ACT. He is the resident scenic designer for Tacoma Arts Live. His works “Ang Post Office ng Hari” and “Umaaraw Umuulan Kinakasal Ang Tikbalang” were selected for a Philippines exhibit in the Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space in 2011 and 2015. He was nominated for the 2019 Gregory Award for Outstanding Scenic Design for his work in Parliament Square produced by Pony World Theatre.
Wanda Walden, Costume Designer
Wanda has costumed plays for more than 30 years. Wanda is the recipient of the 2018–2019 Drammy Award for Outstanding Season. Some of her credits include The Brothers Paranormal (Media Rites); The Wolves, Crowns, How I Learned What I Learned (Portland Playhouse); It's a Wonderful Life, Skeleton Crew, An Octoroon, We are Proud to Present … (Artist Repertory Theatre, she also created a visual presentation of these productions that was exhibited in the lobby); Mother Courage, Ruined, Fires in the Mirror, The Secretaries (Profile Theatre). Wanda is the resident costumer for PassinArt, where her credits include Black Nativity, No Play, and Two Trains Running. Wanda has been commissioned twice by the Susan G. Komen Foundation of Oregon and SW Washington to design the Worship in Pink artwork to support breast cancer awareness.
Marika Kent, Lighting Designer
Marika designs for new and classic plays, musical theater, opera, dance, experimental theater, puppetry, and site-specific performance. Recent and upcoming projects: Reconstruction (The TEAM, dir. Rachel Chavkin); Jazz Singer (Abrons Arts Center); 25th Annual Putnam Country Spelling Bee (ACT of Connecticut); No Child, Memphis, Peter and the Starcatcher (Cape Fear Regional Theater); Ajijaak on Turtle Island (IBEX Puppetry, The New Victory); Roan @ The Gates (Luna Stage); Chimpanzee (HERE Arts); Perp, Abigail's Party (The Barrow Group); Generation NYZ, Alaxsxa/Alaska, Beyond Sacred (Ping Chong + Company); Cheryomushki, Albert Herring, The Snow Maiden (Manhattan School of Music, Opera); She, No Words, Rhapsody in K (Ariel Rivka Dance). Proud member of Wingspace Theatrical Design. marikakent.com
Phil Johnson, Sound Designer
Phil is a visual and theatrical artist based in Portland and the host of the podcast Radical Listening (Coho Productions). His recent productions include Redwood, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (Portland Center Stage at The Armory); Cop Out, Hands Up (August Wilson Red Door Project); A Doll’s House, Part 2, Everybody, The Humans, An Octoroon (Artists Repertory Theatre); Twilight, Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue, The Antigone Project (Profile Theatre); Worse Than Tigers (A Contemporary Theater/Red Stage); Watsonville, Lydia, Contigo Pan y Cebolla (Milagro Theatre). Phil has a B.F.A. and M.A. from Ohio University. If you enjoyed the show, please comment @philjohnsonlive or visit philjohnsondesignstheworld.com for more content and show playlists.
Yetunde Felix-Ukwu, Dialect Coach
Yetunde is a theater and film actor, university instructor, dialect coach, and arts administrator. She is currently serving on the artistic staff at Kansas City Repertory Theatre. Recent theater credits include: A Christmas Carol, School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play, Letters from Freedom Summer (KC Rep); The Wolves, Men on Boats, Babel (Unicorn Theatre); Secret Soldiers: Heroines In Disguise (The Coterie). Recent film credits include: Pheasants, Safe States. Recent dialect coach credits include: School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play (KC Rep); Sarafina! (The Black Repertory Theatre of Kansas City). She is an M.F.A. graduate of the University of Missouri-Kansas City. As a member of the African Diaspora, she is extremely excited to be partnering with Portland Center Stage at The Armory on this poignant and deeply personal artistic work. Instagram: yetunde2.0
Kristen Mun, Stage Manager
Kristen was born and raised on the island of Oahu and holds a B.F.A. from Southern Oregon University. She is excited to return for her seventh season at Portland Center Stage at The Armory. Previous credits at The Armory include stage manager for Native Gardens, Until The Flood, Sense and Sensibility, Constellations, and Major Barbara; assistant stage manager for In the Heights, The Color Purple, Fun Home, and Astoria: Part Two; and production assistant from 2013 to 2017. Kristen is a proud member of Actors’ Equity and is a freelance violence designer and teacher of stage combat. She sends her love to Adam and her family for always having her back.
Macarena Subiabre, Production Assistant
Macarena is excited to join Portland Center Stage at The Armory this season, where she was recently a production assistant for Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley and In the Heights. She graduated in 2018 with a B.F.A. in stage management from the University of Utah, where she stage managed productions such as Arcadia, Cats, Into the Woods, Good Kids, and the U.S. premiere of The Beautiful Game. Other credits include: A Comedy of Tenors (Pioneer Theatre Company); How I Learned to Drive (Salt Lake Fringe Festival); and You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (Salt Lake Shakespeare). She was also lucky to complete an internship with Cirque du Soleil where she worked on Zumanity and the Cirque Cabaret, 2018.
What Critics are Saying
“Brisk and funny ... too precious an opportunity to miss.” - The Portland Observer
“Funny, biting, and well worth seeing ... shines a piercing light on the issue of colorism (a form of discrimination that favors people with lighter skin over those with darker skin) and the damaging effects of the globalization of Western beauty standards.” - BroadwayWorld
“Presented with humor, biting wit, and a deft sense for how teenage girls talk and interact with each other. It moves from funny to vicious in seconds, and the stakes are high. This is a story about how the world works.” - Judy Nedry
What Audiences are Saying
“The performances were stunning. These women carried the parts and brought emotional depth to their teenage characters.”
“This show highlights many important topics and stimulates conversations we NEED to be having. Well done, cast!”
“Loved it, strong performances, and fun while still putting forward a very heavy message.”
“I thought about many things the day after seeing this play ... a seemingly simple, but rich production.”
“Funny, witty, great acting.”
“Great for mother/daughter outing.”
“Fantastic show and great performers. Another must-see show at The Armory.”
“Excellent acting and compelling story! Go see it!”
“A GLEEFUL AFRICAN MAKEOVER OF AN AMERICAN GENRE ... The nasty-teen comedy genre emerges wonderfully refreshed and even deepened by its immersion in a world it never considered.” – The New York Times
“Ferociously entertaining and as heartwarming as it is hilarious. Engaging from first minute to last.” – The Hollywood Reporter
“Interlaced throughout School Girls is a note of poignancy: for these girls, the pageant is not an example of female exploitation or marker of shabby Western values. In a developing country, it seems, it’s one of the few sure ways up and out. To this aspirational idea, Bioh adds the divisive issue of how beauty is perceived in a black society. The resentments that boil over in the play reflect some of the distorted priorities that white standards for physical perfection have imposed on the rest of the world.” - The Washington Post
"FUNNY, FIERCE, FEARSOME" - Vulture