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STREAMING THEATER REVIEW School Girls; Or The African Mean Girls Play
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2020-05-22

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Playwright: Jocelyn Bioh

At: Goodman Theatre online at GoodmanTheatre.org/StreamSchoolGirls. Tickets: $20. Runs through: May 31

Ranking in popularity on the list of spectator sports just behind young men inflicting physical damage upon one another is the voyeuristic titillation engendered by exhibitions of young women inflicting psychological pain and humiliation on their peers, especially within the restricted sphere of secondary school. Theatergoers, it appears, never tire of morality fables featuring females locked in a struggle for dominance.

The setting for Jocelyn Bioh's 2017 play is Ghana in 1986, at a boarding school attended chiefly by the daughters of wealthy parents, along with a few scholarship students of humble lineage. Representing the nucleus of the student body is a six-member coterie led by the bossy Paulina Sarpong, whose biting candor ensures the compliance of her adherents—the brawny Nana being the most frequently singled out for vituperation, while classmates Ama, Gifty and Mercy are content to go-along-to-get-along. However, when a new pupil arrives—an expatriate of fair complexion and United States citizenship—she has the power to refute Paulina's boastful fabrications regarding her connections to The Land of the Free.

Bioh quickly ups the ante when the girls are offered the opportunity to compete for the title of Miss Ghana in an international beauty pageant—an honor offering not only glamor and prestige for the winner ( including a date with pop star Bobby Brown! ), but a hefty donation for the impoverished academy and global recognition for their tiny country. Additional intrigue arises from the beauty pageant scout, an alumna of this very alma mater, and formerly the nemesis of its Headmistress. Unsurprisingly, revelations, confessions and catharses soon abound, but also the possibility of recovery and reconciliation.

Playgoers who came to the Goodman Theatre's final preview had no way of knowing that they would be the last to see it performed live on stage for the duration of the current CDC-mandated closures. Luckily, the multiple-camera video filmed by Cody Nieset, Alberto Mendoza and Matt Hooks deftly captures both the virtuosic group dynamics and the carefully-nuanced individual subtexts ( when an actor cries, for example, the close-up view reveals a face wet with actual tears ) of an ensemble delivering Bioh's exquisitely crafted text under the direction of Lili-Ann Brown and the pinpoint-perfect dialect instruction of Phyllis E. Griffin.

The stage picture assembled by designers Yu Shibagaki ( scenic ), Samantha C. Jones ( costumes ) Jason Lynch ( lighting , Justin Ellington ( sound ) and a hardworking technical team is likewise reproduced in vibrant detail on the videotape airing online through May 31 ( at a fraction of the live ticket price ). Even those viewing it from their sofas can almost—but only "almost"—feel as though they were there on Dearborn Street on the night before the lights all went dark.


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