“If you’re from Africa, why are you white?”
This famous line—from the 2004 film “Mean Girls”—was originally meant to be comedic, but its deeper meaning acted as inspiration for the KC Rep’s new play, “School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play.”
The story, written by Jocelyn Bioh, is set at an all-girls boarding school in Ghana in 1986. Paulina (Bri Woods), the queen bee and “mean girl” of the group, has her sights set on winning the prized Miss Ghana competition.
In the beginning, Paulina’s four friends worship and criticize her at the same time, teetering between friend and foe. They each want to audition for Miss Ghana, but have their own ambitions at the same time, like getting into college and meeting boys.
Paulina’s plan is threatened when a new student arrives from America. The new student is Ericka (Morgan Walker), the daughter of a cocoa plant owner, and the characters immediately fawn over her fair complexion.
The story soon delves deeper into social and cultural issues that still affect African American women today, such as colorism and classism. Skin bleaching, a harmful cosmetic treatment that lightens skin pigment, is mentioned frequently by the characters.
Ericka becomes the new frontrunner for the Miss Ghana pageant when a former student and Miss Ghana 1966 winner recruits her. The recruiter, Eloise (Chioma Anyanwu), remarks that Ericka’s light skin will be sure to win over the judges, whose tastes tend to favor those with light skin.
The play’s plot reaches a climax when the characters fight over who should be the candidate for Miss Ghana and the truth about Paulina and Ericka’s identities.
Woods delivers a complex, emotional performance as Paulina. The character is funny, cruel at times, and internally torn about her poor upbringing, strained relationship with her mother, and desire to be admired and beautiful.
“School Girls” is a funny, emotional look at the lives of six young Ghanaian women trying to navigate through friendships, fit in with each other, and deal with the pressures of Western beauty ideals.
School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play will be showing at the KC Rep’s Copaken Stage until March 17.