Review: ‘School Girls’ tackles universal themes of racism, body image
I was born and brought up in Pakistan, a country that I suppose is known to the world as very traditional and, in some ways, rigid. But as I spent a week in Pittsburgh as a visiting reporter, I saw how things are no different here: Thousands of miles away from home, I found myself reckoning with issues such as patriarchy, racism, body image and gender disparity – issues that I grew up with on completely different continent.
These issues surfaced as I watched Jocelyn Bioh’s hit comedy, “School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play,” now playing at the O’Reilly Theater in Pittsburgh’s Downtown, produced by Pittsburgh Public Theater.
What hit home to me was how young women across the globe are judged on the basis of their skin color or the shape of their bodies. The story was set in Ghana, but as I sat in a theater in Pittsburgh, I was reminded of how young people everywhere face peer pressure at school, and how tough it can be to not give in and to fight back. All of these issues come together in a production that aims to spread the message of acceptance and coexistence in our societies.
Directed by Kenyan-born, New York-based Shariffa Ali, “School Girls” is based in the Aburi Girls’ Boarding School, located in the Aburi Mountains in Central Ghana. Set in 1986, it features an all-female cast including Markia Nicole Smith as Paulina, Aidaa Peerzada as Ericka, Candace Boahene as Mercy, Atiauna Grant as Nana, Shakara Wright as Gifty, Ezioma Asonye as Ama, Shinnerrie Jackson as Headmistress Francis and Melessie Clark as Eloise.
The Pittsburgh production opened Nov. 15 and runs through Dec. 8. With a 90-minute run time, the show has no intermission. But trust me, you won’t mind that; it’s crisp, funny and never has a dull moment.
“School Girls” follows the lives of a group of young women including Paulina (Smith), a self-proclaimed diva who wants to dominate the rest. She clearly enjoys imposing her thoughts on her peers, especially Nana (Grant), who struggles with her weight and has a hard time controlling her diet. But there is a twist: When a wealthy new student with fairer skin, Ericka (Peerzada), joins the school, everyone except Paulina begins to adore her.
This is where the conflict arises, followed by a terrible fight leading to some self-reflection for everybody in question, particularly Paulina and Ericka. Witness how their journey unfolds for yourself by seeing the show – I won’t give away any spoilers.
As soon as the show concluded, I was excited to meet the cast and talk to them to get their perspectives on the narrative. When the girls came out of the dressing room, I introduced myself to them and they were delighted to know I was from Pakistan and related to the show.
“I think there is always room for improvement in every aspect, not just in theater, but in other career paths as well,” said Clark, who plays the role of Eloise, the former Miss Ghana. “But Pittsburgh has such a great community of people and we have really tried to explore everyone’s experiences, not only just the ‘black experience.’ We hope that it reaches other cultures.”
Smith, who delivered a powerful performance as Paulina, asserted that body shaming is something everybody encounters, consciously or subconsciously.
“It is getting better as we are starting to see different body types represented, but I think we have our ways to go,” Smith said. “It is really important that this play touches upon body shaming, colorism and a lot of different things that I think anybody, whether they are black or white, can connect to.”
To my surprise, Aidaa Peerzada, who plays the role of the new student, Ericka, is of a Pakistani descent. When I told her that I appreciated her brilliant performance, she responded “Shukriya,” a term used in Pakistan’s official language, Urdu, to say “thank you.” I asked her how she is familiar with the term, to which she replied that her father was born in Pakistan.
I learned that her father is the Pakistani actor Imran Peerzada. He played a prominent part in a recently concluded Pakistani drama, called “Inkaar,” which was acclaimed for its social commentary. Veteran Pakistani actors Samina Peerzada and Usman Peerzada, her aunt and uncle, have been an integral part of TV and film in Pakistan for decades.
We spoke about how people in Pakistan are obsessed with fair skin; many of them, especially young girls, use products to lighten their dark skin tone for a fairer complexion. She was quick to share that the concept of fairness creams is no different in the U.S. and they are as easily accessible.
These women, who brought their A-game to the table, told me that they are proud to be associated with an art form as powerful as theater because it gives them the opportunity to highlight important issues and touch people in different ways. This is perhaps what art is all about. It connects people from different backgrounds and places, just as it did for me.
As Clark put it on a parting note, “Theater gives us an opportunity to share our experiences and then audiences build their own relationship with the story.”