Off-Broadway Play 'African Mean Girls' Earns Raves For Its Twist On A Classic Tale : Goats and Soda Playwright Jocelyn Bioh is using a familiar premise to show us a different side of Africa.
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'African Mean Girls' Are The Toast Of New York Theater

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'African Mean Girls' Are The Toast Of New York Theater

'African Mean Girls' Are The Toast Of New York Theater

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The 2004 film "Mean Girls" is coming to Broadway next year, but critics are heaping praise on a new off-Broadway play. It is called, "School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play," and NPR's Nurith Aizenman met the playwright.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Jocelyn Bioh decided to become a playwright when, as an acting major at Ohio State University, she was having a hard time landing roles. She's dark skinned, the U.S.-born daughter of immigrants from Ghana. Finally, she was offered the part of a cockroach.

JOCELYN BIOH: That was the only play that they would pick for all of the artists of color who were in the program.

AIZENMAN: It wasn't even a solo role. This was going to be a chorus.

BIOH: Yeah. I wasn't the lead cockroach. I'm like, how are you going to be a part of the choral of roaches? Like, even my 19-year-old self understood how insulting that was.

AIZENMAN: So she set out to write her own material, nuanced, multi-dimensional roles for black women. And from the start, she was drawn to stories about life in contemporary Africa, the life she'd come to know through her parents and through visits to Ghana. It wasn't easy getting her plays produced. On some of her early work...

BIOH: I got a lot of notes and questions.

AIZENMAN: Like, how can you write about Africa and not mention famine or government corruption or civil wars? And...

BIOH: Not that those stories are not true or accurate...

AIZENMAN: But for so many Africans, that's not the day to day reality. So for her new play, "School Girls," set in a school in Ghana, Bioh decided to focus on a character she figured would have irresistible appeal, the mean girl. And when we first meet the queen bee in this play, she seems like just the kind of villain we love to hate. Here she is, played by MaameYaa Boafo, with her crew in the cafeteria telling off a heavy girl for eating too much.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "SCHOOL GIRLS; OR, THE AFRICAN MEAN GIRLS PLAY")

MAAMEYAA BOAFO: (As Paulina) Do you want to be fat-fat, or fit and popular?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (As characters) Yeah. Choose your choice.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Popular.

BOAFO: (As Paulina) Good.

AIZENMAN: But then Bioh goes deeper. She wants to explore the insecurity that's at the heart of girls' cruelty to each other.

BIOH: Yeah. I mean, I took the idea and then I remixed it. (Laughter).

AIZENMAN: And for these girls, that insecurity has its roots in the corrosive legacy of colonialism because they're competing to meet an ideal of beauty and worth that's imported from the West, which means by definition they'll never measure up. It all comes to a head when a new, American-born girl arrives from Ohio. The queen bee has met her match, largely because the new girl is half white, which puts her in the lead when a recruiter for the Miss Ghana pageant comes calling looking for a girl with a more commercial look. Here's the headmistress pushing back.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "SCHOOL GIRLS; OR, THE AFRICAN MEAN GIRLS PLAY")

MYRA LUCRETIA TAYLOR: (As Headmistress Francis) So you are saying what, exactly? That we are just looking for girls that fall on the other end of the African skin spectrum?

AIZENMAN: Bioh says this plot twist was inspired by the real-life controversy that erupted back in 2011 when a very light-skinned, Minnesota-born woman was chosen as Miss Ghana.

BIOH: That was very fascinating to me, you know, that this standard that we uphold in Western culture has somehow infiltrated into African culture.

AIZENMAN: In desperation, the queen bee resorts to a dangerous measure - skin bleaching cream. Bioh says she was drawing from personal experience on this one.

BIOH: Yeah. A lot of women in our family, you know, and even at one point myself, we all had some sort of experience with skin bleaching at one point or another. It's a huge what I will call epidemic in many African countries.

AIZENMAN: And she points out that products meant to make a woman look more Western aren't limited to Africa. You see them in Asia and Latin America.

BIOH: I think that was the hope, that we would start with this kind of insular group of girls in this lunchroom.

AIZENMAN: And by the end of the play, she says, suddenly we're dealing with a global issue. Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.

GREENE: "School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play" is at the MCC Theater in New York City through the end of this month.

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