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Queen Bees and Wannabes

VCUarts Theatre’s “School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play” explores teen cliques and colorism in 1980s Ghana.


Being a teen is tough. There’s acne, the pressure of getting into college, discovering your sexuality — it can be a lot to take on at once. And depending where you sit in the social pecking order and what cliques you find yourself moving within, there can be pressure to conform and perform.

It’s during this formative time that audiences find the characters of Jocelyn Bioh’s “School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play,” which hits the stage this weekend at Virginia Commonwealth University’s W.E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts.

It’s 1986 in southeastern Ghana, and the teens at Aburi Girls’ Senior High School are prepping for a beauty pageant. The stage is set for Paulina, the haughty queen bee of the school, to walk away with the competition.

But Paulina’s plans of beauty queen victory are challenged when Ericka, the daughter of a local cocoa tycoon, transfers to the school from Ohio. Ericka is more sophisticated and possesses lighter skin than Paulina. This not only threatens Paulina but sets off ugly questions of colorism and internalized racism.

“It’s a play by a Black woman looking at the experience of Black girls,” explains Katrinah Carol Lewis, a local actress and director of the VCUarts Theatre show. “How do they survive in a world that doesn’t necessarily see them as beautiful or worthy?”

As the show’s subtitle suggests, it borrows its clique-y template from movies like “Mean Girls,” “Heathers” and “Legally Blonde.”

“The themes are universal, and I think that everyone coming to see this show will see something of themselves in these girls,” Lewis says. “The message hits you like a ton of bricks when you have fallen in love with these girls and you see their value.”

To help the students get into the spirit of the show, Lewis made a playlist of ’80s tunes by the likes of Whitney Houston and New Edition. She says the students – who weren’t alive during the ’80s – recognized the songs, calling them “oldies” and “throwback music.”

At one point in the show, a character walks into a scene with an old Sony Walkman.

“That just took me way back, with the big headphones and the cassette tape,” says Lewis, adding that the cast did their own research for their roles. “It has been a really wonderful experience. I have enjoyed working with these young actresses. They have a really wonderful energy and a willingness to try and a great work ethic.”

A scene during "School Girls" tech. (from left) Ivana-Renae Thompson, Isoke White, El Strickland, Marya Brice. Set design by Tomya Pryor and lighting design by Nate Cain. - COURTESY OF VCUARTS
  • Courtesy of VCUarts
  • A scene during "School Girls" tech. (from left) Ivana-Renae Thompson, Isoke White, El Strickland, Marya Brice. Set design by Tomya Pryor and lighting design by Nate Cain.

Amaiya Howard, a VCU senior double-majoring in theater performance and mass communications, plays Paulina.

“She’s not very nice to her friends, and it was hard to tap into that,” says Howard of her character. “People will see the softer side of Paulina, and see that she’s still just a kid, even though she’s this mean, vicious person to her friends and to new people.”

Paulina’s best friend Ama is portrayed by Isoke White, a junior double-majoring in history and theater.

“She’s pretty loyal to Paulina, but throughout the show, she’s working up the courage to stand up to her, because she sees that what Paulina is doing is wrong,” says White of Ama. “‘School Girls’ is a very serious, but very comedic play. You will laugh, you will cry, you may even swoon a little bit, just because of the love that some of these girls have for each other, and how they lift each other up.”

Lewis says the show balances levity with its more serious subject matter.

“It’s so funny. It’s a good time,” Lewis says. “It’s 90 minutes, no intermission. You get in, you get out. There’s lots of good laughs and lots of things that you’ll take home to think about.”

VCUarts Theatre’s “School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play” runs Feb. 23-26 at the W.E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts, 922 Park Ave. For more information, visit or call (804)-828-6026.