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Playwright Jocelyn Bioh Blends Comedy and Culture in ‘School Girls’

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L-R: Latoya Edwards, Jocelyn Bioh, and Mirirai Sithole at the opening night performance of “School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play” at Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre.

Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging.

Center Theatre Group has remained the first and only West Coast theatre to embrace my voice as a writer.

I write African comedies, explained Ghanian American playwright Jocelyn Bioh. There are so many beautiful layers to my continent, and I feel rewarded in knowing that I’m adding to the conversation of how the African diaspora is reflected [onstage].

As the title playfully suggests, School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play (onstage at the Kirk Douglas Theatre September 2–30, 2018) explores—through wit and humor—the dynamics of a group of young women in a boarding school in Ghana. As a first-generation immigrant born and raised in Washington Heights in New York City, Bioh was heavily inspired by her own experiences attending boarding school in Pennsylvania. I was so fascinated by the popular kids and the interesting cliques that formed there, said Bioh, who attended the Milton Hershey School on scholarship. I always knew I would write a play about those feelings and experiences.

Bioh also found inspiration in real-world events. About four or so years ago, I came across a story about Erica Nego, who had been crowned Miss Ghana in 2011, she said. At the time, it was a big scandal because she was a biracial Ghanaian American woman who was born and raised in America, and the Ghanaian pageant officials had clearly scouted her and brought her to Ghana to compete. It all just seemed so clear that they thought they would have a more competitive candidate [at Miss Universe] with a woman who was lighter-skinned. As it turns out, Nego did not even place in the top 16 of the competition. Instead, Leila Lopes was crowned Miss Universe that year, and her represented country of Angola became the fourth African country to win the title. Somehow both of those stories and experiences seemed like the perfect combination, said Bioh, and I thought I would try conflating them into a play.

Bioh’s background as a performer whose credits include the original Broadway production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time also shaped the writing of School Girls. As an actress, I’ve only ever worked on new plays, she explained (the role of Minnie in Obie Award-winning An Octoroon was written specifically for her by playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins), so I approach my work with a collaborative mindset where I know that the actors will have influence on the piece in the same way that I do as an actress.

Bioh took an active role in rehearsals from the beginning to watch the all-women cast—many of whom have family roots in Ghana—work through her script. By seeing her pages come to life, she was able to re-work some of the dialogue and action to better serve the story.

Bioh also found working with Tony Award-winning director Rebecca Taichman incredibly helpful, as Taichman was constantly asking the right questions and giving the right provocations to find the heart of the play. Through this immersive process with Taichman and the cast, Bioh encountered new and deeper moments in the story that she sought to unpack and went home to rewrite the script every night. By the end of the rehearsal period, Bioh had 27 drafts of School Girls. An extended World premiere Off-Broadway at MCC Theater in 2017 followed, where the show earned rave reviews from critics and audiences alike. The show returns to MCC later this fall after its Douglas run.

Now that we all know what exactly the play is, I’m very excited to share this final product with a wider audience, Bioh said. Center Theatre Group has remained the first and only West Coast theatre to embrace my voice as a writer. I’m excited about introducing Douglas audiences to this genre of African comedy. Hopefully, School Girls will serve as a catalyst to seeing the universality of our high school experiences.

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