Regional Reviews: Chicago
School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play
It resembles Tina Fey's 2004 movie Mean Girls in its vicious, dominating glamor. But it's actually a lot more fun, because these sub-Saharan girls are not so homogenized by American pop culture. And, in its battle against tyranny, School Girls is also a perfect antidote for the fear and limitations we've all been facing lately.
The 2017 Off-Broadway play was supposed to go on here in 2020 but instead marks the reopening of the Goodman a year later, as vaccines gradually tame the COVID-19 pandemic. Masks are still required in the audience during the show, but that doesn't dampen the enthusiasm that greeted this exploration of girlish humor and conspiracy and, ultimately, an unnerving look at how African beauty is perceived on the world stage.
The whole cast is outstanding, led by Ciera Dawn as the ferocious would-be pageant queen Paulina. She is one of five young American actresses who people the stage, as the adorable, often electric African students at the Aburi Presbyterian Girl's Secondary School. The direction by Lili-Anne Brown is 90% taut, pausing only for great comical flourishes that camouflage a darker truth. That grotesque surprise is gradually revealed by Lanise Antoine Shelley as a pageant talent scout, a sort of 20-years-into-the-future version of Paulina: a kittenish cougar on the prowl to find the next Miss Ghana. Think of her, Hollywood, when you need your next Bond villain.
Ashley Crowe is lovable as Nana, badgered over body image and blackmailed into dangerous behavior. Adhana Reid and Tiffany Renee Johnson are delightful among the schoolgirls, and Adia Alli tugs at heartstrings as a student who tries in vain to hide a disability. Tania Richard is just as surprising as the rest of these actresses; she finds the perfect tenor of an African educator, gentle and commanding as the school's headmistress.
And Kyrie Courter is great as the wild card, the new girl from America who turns the whole thing upside-down. She just doesn't know what she's in for from the girls, nor any of them a thing about the international standard of beauty, with its outside weights and measures, to redefine them all. After the final scenes, we barely even know what beauty is anymore.
School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play runs through August 29, 2021, at the Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn, Chicago IL. For information and tickets, visit www.goodmantheatre.org
Additional Artistic Support:
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association, the professional organization of performers and stage managers in the United States.