ST. PETERSBURG — It’s Black History Month, and St. Petersburg’s American Stage is presenting a thought-provoking play centered on an all-Black, all-female story.
School Girls; Or the African Mean Girls Play is playwright Jocelyn Bioh’s reaction to the 2011 Miss Ghana contest, in which Erica Nego, a biracial woman from Minnesota whose father was Ghanaian, won. Her win sparked a debate on colorism.
Directed by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, American Stage’s producing artistic director and resident playwright, the play uses comedy to address ideas of colorism and expectations of beauty.
Set in 1986 in an all-girls school in Ghana, the play follows queen bee Paulina (the dynamic Aguel Lual) as she bullies her friend Nana (the sympathetic Jada Austin) about overeating, and brags (and lies) to her friends Mercy (Massiel Evans), Gifty (Phineas Slaton) and Ama (Ivy Sunflower). As Mercy and Gifty, Evans and Slaton bring the laughs, while Sunflower’s Ama has no problem challenging Paulina.
Paulina’s all hot to win the Miss Ghana contest, which will secure her a spot in a Miss Universe-type pageant. She’s insufferable, going on and on about her likely win. Enter Ericka Boafa (played with bemused spirit by Siobhan Marie Hunter), a light-skinned American girl who has recently moved to Ghana to be with her father. Paulina immediately feels threatened by Ericka, especially when the other girls take to her so quickly.
Headmistress Francis (Phyllis Yvonne Stickney) and the woman in charge of the contest, Eloise Ampohsah (Jennifer Leigh Warren), are revealed to have their own mean girl history — Eloise won the contest 20 years ago over Francis.
Eloise immediately favors Ericka as a contestant over Paulina, because she says her look is “more commercial and universal.” Paulina’s insecurities are eventually revealed (she has been bleaching her skin), Ericka’s truth comes out and, in the end, none of the girls see themselves reflected in the contestants.
Stickney and Warren are both acclaimed performers of the stage and screen who were invited by Maharaj to be in this production. The Tampa Bay Times caught up with the pair by phone to talk about the play.
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The play delves into themes of colorism and expectations of beauty. Have you both experienced that in life and in entertainment?
Stickney: Yes, of course, every day. It still goes on, the saga of being a richly melanated girl. Richly melanated does not translate oftentimes. So yeah, it’s gotten a little better, but it still matters ... The lighter complexioned or the less melanated is somehow more desirable.
Warren: There’s always different types and that’s what I love about Rajendra, is that he saw us in these parts, whereas I maybe would not have seen myself because even I have these things of going up against things and saying, “Oh, well, they will never give me this part or whatever.”
How is it working with the cast of young actors?
Stickney: I think because of the safe space that (Maharaj) gave them, an experience that they may not ever get again, but it has elevated them and made them also see how wonderful and special each one of them are in their own right.
Warren: We all talked around the table and talked about experiences that we’ve had. And they talked about experiences in their young lives already, in reference to colorism or sizes of the beauty business and the whole situation.
Stickney: They’re great. And they soak up everything. They’re very astute and made some amazing choices.
Warren: And not the usual choices for the casting. I mean, we’re talking colorism and you have that beautiful Aguel playing Paulina.
Stickney: She’s perfect (in her) skills as an actor. Visually, she’s cast as a pretty girl because she’s very, very chocolate.
Warren: And as she should be! That’s what’s really great about the play.
Stickney: And Ericka is full-figured. She’s not really, you know, size 000 or size 3. She is a full-figured beauty. And there’s varied hair textures. The vision of (Maharaj) to see that, to understand that and to be able to lay it out so beautifully in the rehearsal process that they understand why he cast them in those roles so that they begin to open up their concepts and their visions and thoughts about themselves as talent.
Warren: And say, I belong. I am enough. I am good. I belong in this role. It took a little while for them to understand why he cast them.
Stickney: Because it’s not traditional as we’re used to seeing it or have seen it in other spaces and places. So I think that they feel very much supported.
Any final thoughts on the play?
Warren: It’s an important piece, a lovely piece. And some people may think “Oh, do I really want to go see the show about these Black girls?”
Stickney: And the answer’s yes! Replace judgment with curiosity and...
Both: Have a great time!
If you go
School Girls; Or the African Mean Girls Play runs through Feb. 27. $47-$57. American Stage, 163 Third St. N, St. Petersburg. 727-823-7529. americanstage.org.
American Stage has programmed a monthlong series called Speak the Dream that featured a conversation Feb. 7 at the Studio@620, in which Stickney and Warren were honored. Upcoming events in the series include a reading of The Mountaintop on Feb. 15 at Today’s Church Tampa Bay (2114 54th Ave. N, St. Petersburg, free), A One Night Only Performance with Phyllis Yvonne Stickney on Feb. 21 in the American Stage lobby ($30) and Never Stop Talking It featuring the premiere of Maharaj’s play Rise: An African American Word Quilt on Feb. 28 (free) in the American Stage lobby. Visit americanstage.org for more information.