On Monday, the New York Times reported that a significant milestone has just been reached: For the first time, the crowns of all three major beauty pageants — Miss America, Miss USA, and Miss Teen USA — are simultaneously held by African-American women.
But deep within that story there was a caveat, voiced by Ashley Nkadi, a former Miss Black Ohio who has written about the lack of inclusivity in American beauty pageants. Nkadi noted that pageant winners do not tend to be “plus-size’’ and seldom have darker skin, adding, “I definitely still think the Eurocentric beauty model still dominates.’’
The prevalence of that model and the way it has given rise to “colorism,’’ both outside and inside the black community, form the twin subjects of Jocelyn Bioh’s “School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play.’’ After premiering two years ago in New York under the direction of Rebecca Taichman (currently at the helm of Paula Vogel’s “Indecent’’ at the Huntington Theatre Company), “School Girls’’ is now receiving a first-rate SpeakEasy Stage Company production, directed by Summer L. Williams.
Though deceptively small in scale and often comic in tone, “School Girls’’ packs a considerable emotional wallop. Set in a girls’ boarding school in central Ghana in 1986, the play tracks the competition within a group of friends to become contestants in the Miss Ghana pageant, with the hope of going on to the “Miss Global Universe’’ pageant. It’s not really much of a competition, though, because most of the girls expect the self-assured leader of their group, Paulina (Ireon Roach), to be chosen.
Until, that is, a lighter-skinned American transfer student named Ericka (Victoria Byrd) arrives at the school. Suddenly, the balance of power shifts, with implications for the worldview of Paulina (who might not be as confident as she appears) and also her hitherto cowed followers: Nana (Shanelle Chloe Villegas), Ama (Sabrina Victor), Mercy (Tenneh Sillah), and Gifty (Geraldine Bogard).
Bioh, whose parents immigrated from Ghana to the United States, know how to distribute the weight: She smartly does not overload her 80-minute play, and director Williams keeps it moving at a fleet pace. One of Williams’s specialties is working with young actors, and that pays off here: Her endearing cast adeptly mines moments small and large for laughs. (An extended scene in which the girls take turns soloing on Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All’’ is priceless.)
But beneath the animated surface of “School Girls’’ lie resonant and wrenching depths, and both Bioh and Williams make sure to take us there. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, “School Girls’’ suggests, we need to examine how much that vision has been clouded by invidious cultural assumptions that work against darker-skinned women. The play asks us to consider the ways in which discriminatory beauty standards can damage self-image.
At first, Roach’s Paulina projects an air of absolute command. With every look, gesture, and icy vocal intonation, the actress captures the quintessence of the high school queen bee. When one of her friends laughs at a joke told by Ericka, Roach’s Paulina swivels her head and freezes the girl with a glare. Playwright Bioh clearly understands, however, that not just intimidation but seeming to be in the know can vault you to the top of a social hierarchy — especially during adolescence, when teenagers feign more knowledge than they actually possess.
So while Paulina exerts control over the other girls by weaponizing their insecurities about their looks, family backgrounds, and status — a particular target of her bullying is bashful Nana, who struggles with her weight — Paulina also inspires their awe by boasting of her supposed knowledge of American fashion, cuisine, and pop culture. However, in a further demonstration of Bioh’s savvy about the social dynamics of high school, there are signs of latent rebellion by the girls early on, and Paulina’s mystique crumbles utterly when Ericka captures the excited attention of the recruiter for the Miss Ghana pageant, played by Kris Sidberry.
It’s a welcome return to a Boston stage for Sidberry, whose last local performance was in SpeakEasy’s 2016 production of “Significant Other,’’ and who endows the recruiter in “School Girls’’ with just the right combination of glamour, ambition, and self-absorption. Also a decided asset is Crystin Gilmore, who played the sensual Shug Avery in SpeakEasy’s 2014 production of “The Color Purple.’’ In “School Girls,’’ portraying the school’s headmistress, Gilmore nicely balances steeliness and compassion.
Compassion abounds in this play as well, and it very much extends to Paulina as well as the rest of the girls. We come to care about all of them. And by the end of “School Girls,’’ after they’ve learned the unjust ways of the world, they all seem a little older.
SCHOOL GIRLS; OR, THE AFRICAN MEAN GIRLS PLAY
Play by Jocelyn Bioh. Directed by Summer L. Williams. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company. At Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through May 25. Tickets from $25, 617-933-8600, www.speakeasystage.com