Every time I see a show at The Jungle, I think "they can't possibly top this..."
|Photo by Dan Norman|
... and then I find myself to be all wrong a couple months later when a new show opens.
Readers may remember my glowing review of the Jungle's reprisal of The Wolves last month, their powerful show about a girl's high school soccer team told exclusively by and from the perspective of teenage girls. It was a masterful piece of acting and writing, and really solidified for me how the simple act of naming a visionary artistic director - Sarah Rassmussen, in this case - can totally change the aura and value a theater brings to the community. Don't get me wrong; The Jungle has always done great work, but the fresh crop of new directors, actors, creative teams, playwrights and just truly intentional, inclusive diversity that is whipping through that stage is really inspiring to watch. The continued focus on women's voices, and especially those of young women / teenagers, is really filling a void in our artistic community and bringing scores of exciting new voices to the forefront of #tctheater stages and imaginations.
The latest show to fall in this spectrum, School Girls or, The African Mean Girls Play, is also one of the best - which is really saying something. A fictional play inspired by a true story, School Girls is about a school of girls in Ghana who are competing against each other to win the Miss Ghana pageant (along with the fame and opportunity to travel to the Miss Universe pageant that go along with it). Each girl holds a different potential advantage - some are thinner, some have better singing voices and talents, some are smarter, some are kinder, some are wealthier - but what ultimately proves to be the winning ticket is to be the person with the lightest skin. The build up to the selection for the pageant includes infighting and backstabbing as only a group of teenage girls can do, meeting (and even exceeding) the vicious bullying detailed in the famous movie Mean Girls (aka Lindsay Lohan's best movie - easily, ever). It's a play that is as entertaining as it is heartbreaking, showing the evil underbelly of our world just as it details the side splitting moments of joy we cling to through the madness.
|Photo by Dan Norman|
I searched my mind for another play I've seen featuring an exclusive troupe of black women actors on stage, and the only one I could come up with was the excellent Nina Simone: Four Women that ran at Park Square Theatre a few years ago (I also could count for colored girls... which featured all women of color at the Penumbra last year and was equally amazing). It's a shame it's taken this long for me to see another group of vivacious, fiercely talented black women shining together on-stage, and I thoroughly enjoyed the camaraderie this group presented. Ashe Jaafaru is positively riveting as the main character (antihero?) Paulina. Paulina is a very complex character - ruthless, shrewd, bullying, and also abused, defensive and ambitious. It's a potent mix that Jaafaru pushes to the ultimate limit, often eliciting gasps from the audience with her sharply barbed delivery. Her performance makes a pointed contrast to the sweetness of many of the rest of the characters - among them Paulina's supposed best friend Ama (Aishé Keita), the bubbly Gifty (Nimene Sierra Wureh), vibrant Mercy (Kiara Jackson), and the always-snacking Nana (Salome Mergia). Eponine Diatta is layered as the American transplant Ericka, simple and lovable at first appearance but increasingly cunning as the competition heats up. Ivory Doublette is delightful as the kind Headmistress Francis, giving the story a sense of sanity. And Hope Cervantes is deliciously devious as the Miss Ghana recruiter Eloise Amponsah, whose pointed lines shed the most light on the disturbing ripple effects contests like Miss Universe can have on those who believe in them so fervently.
I really enjoyed the sunny production design, such a contrast to the chilly spring we're having. The set, designed by Seitu Jones and Bianca Janine Pettis, is a brightly lit cafeteria room that is simple but manages to encapsulate many levels of significance as the characters' backgrounds are revealed. Ghanaian designer Jacqueline Addison's vibrant costumes include bright school uniforms, beautiful headwraps, and a full 1980's compendium of prom gown style that will delight even the least nostalgic viewer. Karin Olson's painterly lighting transitions the action quickly from day to night and back again, and Katharine Horowitz's sound design is subtle enough to let you hear a pin drop during the most suspenseful moments. Hats off to visionary director Shá Cage for creating a tightly knit team who is clearly proud of the work they are doing - this show clicks through so smoothly that you barely realize when it's finished, and we all wanted more when the curtains rose for the final applause.
|Photo by Dan Norman|
This is the first play I've seen in a very long time that I've felt compelled to stay for a talk back after the show (especially on a weeknight). We had such a fruitful discussion after, and it was really fun to hear how the Jungle's diversifying (but still mostly older and whiter) audience connected with a play that was so clearly young and black. One of the things I loved most about School Girls was its many points of entry; from classism to racism to gender imbalance to judgments based on one's country of origin to colonialism to colorism, the ultimate theme, there are so many ways to engage with this richly visualized world. Jocelyn Bioh's script does not shy away from complexity, and her bravery in showing all the ugly underbelly of our centralization of Western and Anglo-centric beauty standards is revelatory, especially for audiences who have never encountered terms like colorism or whitening creams. By being unapologetic in its perspective, School Girls confronts us with many painful truths and centers the stories of many kinds of black women in an approachable package, and that's a feat we can use more of in all forms of art. This tautly presented, riveting piece of theater will grace The Jungle's stage only until April 14, so make sure to book your tickets quickly before it disappears. This smart, vivacious, beautiful young cast is truly #worthit. For more information or to buy your tickets, click on this link.