Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play
Spotlight Youth Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's reviews of The Diary of Anne Frank, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (School Edition) and The Kite Runner


Valerie Winch and De'Layla Wilcox
Photo by Tiffany Elyse Photography
The high stakes world of high school cliques, where the queen bee female student reigns over all and decides who can join her group of "popular" kids, is a familiar plot element immortalized in many movie comedies of the past several decades, including Tina Fey's film and later stage and film musical Mean Girls. Playwright Jocelyn Bioh takes the much-loved blueprint but moves the location to 1980s Ghana and also gives a nod to Fey in the title of her refreshing 2017 dramedy, School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play. It's a warm and funny comedy and also a moving drama that shows how similar teenage girls are around the world while also focusing on issues of race and self-image. With a wonderful cast and crisp direction, Spotlight Youth Theatre's production is excellent.

Set in 1986, the play focuses on Paulina, the queen bee of Aburi Girls Boarding School who is threatened when new student Ericka arrives at the school after having grown up in America. Domineering Paulina starts to feel the hold she has over the girls in her group loosen when the nicer Ericka shows up. There is also the chance that the lighter-skinned Ericka will take the spot Paulina has presumed she'll get as one of the candidates from the school for the upcoming Miss Ghana pageant. However, almost all of the girls are more than what we see on the surface, and as secrets are revealed, the play focuses on the teenage desire to fit in, bullying, self-loathing, and the drive to find yourself in the world.

On the play's surface, Bioh has incorporated the familiar characters and plot devices from well-known high school films. However, by also using the play as a way to focus the narrative on race and how acceptance can sometimes be based not just on your personality but also on the color of your skin, it elevates the piece into a moving drama. We also see how every girl, even Paulina and the two adults in the cast, is vulnerable and that sometimes their mean exterior is simply a shield they put up to protect themselves from others finding out the truth. There is a lot of comedy in the piece, which helps balance the more dramatic moments.

Under Chanel Bragg's assured direction, the cast all create compelling, nuanced, and realistic performances. Bragg's direction brings realism to the production which makes you identify with, understand, and feel for every character as well as the complexities of female relationships, particularly in the face of peer pressure and bullying.

As Paulina, De'Layla Wilcox captures the character's complexity with depth and authenticity. Wilcox skillfully navigates through the complexities of the character, who is initially seen as unlikeable due to her sharp tongue and cutting remarks, gradually revealing her vulnerability and the underlying reasons behind her mean exterior. Valerie Winch's portrayal of new girl Ericka Boafo is infused with warmth and sincerity as Ericka grapples with her Ghanaian identity and shows the girls in Paulina's clique the importance of standing up for yourself.

Makenzie Williams shines as Nana, capturing her timidity and inner strength. Her portrayal evokes empathy from the audience, who root for her as she stands up to the domineering Paulina. Kiana Jeskewitz and Hanna-Catherine Smith provide comic relief as Mercy and Gifty, respectively, showcasing wonderful comic timing. Isabella Penza impresses as Ama, who has come to realize that being Paulina's best friend isn't all it's cracked up to be.

As the two adults, Machaya Williams brings depth to the character of Headmistress Francis, revealing a tender side beneath her initially stern fa├žade, and Ryan L. Jenkins delivers a compelling performance as the recruiter for the pageant. Her portrayal delves into the underlying motives behind her character's meanness, exploring themes of self-loathing, insecurity and race.

Creative elements are bright and authentic, including Erin Davidson's schoolyard setting and Briana Thompson;s excellent costume and hair and makeup designs. Under Michael Thompson's dialect coaching, the cast all deliver consistent and faithful accents.

With a talented cast, who bring authenticity and depth to their respective roles, and direction that perfectly balances the comic and dramatic moments in the show, Spotlight Youth Theatre's production of School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play is full of both humor and heart.

School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play runs through April 21, 2024, at Spotlight Youth Theatre, 10620 N 43rd Avenue, Glendale AZ. For tickets and information, please visit www.spotlightyouththeatre.org or call 602-843-8318

Director: Chanel Bragg
Scenic Design: Erin Davidson
Costume Design/ Hair and Makeup Design: Briana Thompson Lighting Design: Dorry Bailes
Properties: Vicki and Kenny Grossman
Sound Design: Nevaeh Monk
Prop Design: Vicki Grossman
Dialect Coach: Michael Thompson
Stage Manager: Maria Guadalupe Cruz

Cast:
Paulina Sarpong: De'Layla Wilcox
Ericka Boafo: Valerie Winch
Ama: Isabella Penza
Nana: Makenzie Williams
Mercy: Kiana Jeskewitz
Gifty: Hanna-Catherine Smith
Headmistress Francis: Machaya Williams
Eloise Amponsah: Ryan L. Jenkins