Paulina cheated on her friends, but she really doesn’t know any better herself. She managed to impress them with stories about a relative in the United States who wears high fashion and works at White Castle. It even sounds royal.
“A castle with food!” said Gifty.
The girls are classmates at Aburi Girls’ Boarding School in rural Ghana. They have no idea what the White Castle restaurant is, but Pauline assured them it was top class.
She and the other girls have a lot to learn, but they aren’t reckless in “School Girls; Or, mean African girls. The NOLA Project presents the one-act comedy-drama at the Marquette Theater at Loyola University in New Orleans from June 16 to July 1.
The drama is similar to one of its inspirations, “Mean Girls,” the popular 2004 teen comedy starring Lindsay Lohan. Paulina is Aburi’s queen bee. She treats her friends like an entourage and tends to bully them. Nana, Mercy, and Gifty are the wannabes, who try to stay in Paulina’s favor. It’s hard for Nana, whom Paulina ridicules for being overweight. Ama is a bit more independent and begins to resist Paulina’s mean streak.
Things are ripe for change when a new student, Ericka, arrives from the United States. She’s smart, beautiful, and familiar with all the names Paulina drops.
Eloise Amponsah, who was Miss Ghana 20 years earlier, is also due to arrive at school. Now she represents the pageant and chooses young women from different regions to compete. The winner of Miss Ghana competes in the Miss Global Universe pageant. Paulina was sure she would be chosen to represent Aburi, but that path is no longer clear when Ericka enters the contest. Now everything in Paulina’s world is at risk, including the loss of her friends.
Many people have heard the phrase “Everyone is a stage…” and many know that it comes from Shakespeare’s work, if not that it comes from “As you like it”.
“If you’re alone, then who’s there to tell you you’re the prettiest or the smartest,” says Tenaj Jackson, who runs the show for The NOLA Project. “She keeps looking for new minions and it keeps working. She gets away with it until the new girl comes along, and then it’s like, ‘Oh, there’s someone prettier and smarter than you.’ It’s wild. She tries her best to regain her power and take back her friends, whom she has not treated fairly.
Young women also have to deal with more difficult issues, including colorism. Ericka, whose father is a Ghanaian cocoa tycoon, is of mixed race. With her fair complexion, she is exactly the kind of candidate that Eloise would like to see in the competition. She might have a better chance against candidates from Brazil, Sweden, France and the United States, Eloise believes. Paulina had already internalized such feelings and secretly uses skin creams to alter her appearance.
“A lot (the drama is about) colorism and beauty standards that we put on ourselves based on what society tells us we should look like,” Jackson says. “Or how smart we should be, or not too smart, because ‘pretty girls shouldn’t be smart’. There’s so much of that.
All girls have things in their lives that they keep private and away from the prying eyes of friends and bullies.
“It’s kind of a thing that hurts people,” Jackson says. “Paulina is up against a lot of things and we see some really human moments from her. It’s like, ‘Oh honey, you’re so mean, but I get it.'”
Classmates are often more preoccupied with schoolgirl things, including verboten snacks and sweets and their shared love for Bobby Brown. The story is set in 1986 and Whitney Houston is also an imminent icon. Jackson introduced his young cast to some ’80s pop culture, including scenes about black beauty standards from Spike Lee’s “School Daze.”
Jackson is also a fan of “Mean Girls”.
“I loved it,” she says. “I’ve been through it all. I was bullied. I’ve been a mean girl sometimes, without meaning to be, but we all go through these phases. Part of the audition was either telling me a time when you were bullied or when you were the bully. We have some mean girls here.
The cast includes many young actresses present or recently graduated from Loyola and the University of New Orleans.
Why do pirates spend so much time hiding and looking for treasure instead of just spending it?
The drama is by Jocelyn Bioh, whose parents immigrated to New York from Ghana. As an actress, she noticed the lack of good roles for black women and decided to start writing them herself. “School Girls” premiered in New York in 2017.
The play has some similarities to Bioh’s own life. Her mother attended Aburi School, a Christian school in eastern Ghana. Bioh went to college in Ohio, where Ericka grew up before moving closer to her father in Ghana.
There was also a Midwestern American who entered the Miss Ghana pageant in 2011, and who inspired Bioh’s play. Whether she won or lost, Bioh thought it had a lot to say about what Ghanaians and others saw as norms for young women.
For tickets and information, visit nolaproject.com.