Jocelyn Bioh Talks … School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play

School Girls; or The African Mean Girls Play, set in 1986 at Ghana’s prestigious Aburi Girls boarding school
Follows Queen Bee Paulina and her crew excitedly awaiting the arrival of a Miss Ghana pageant recruiter. With Paulina obviously set to the title things are thrown into disarray when her place is threatened by Ericka – a beautiful and talented new transfer student.

We spoke to the award-winning writer of this play, Jocelyn Bioh …

Please introduce yourself

Hello there! I’m Jocelyn Bioh (pronounced BEE-OH) and I’m a 1st generation Ghanaian-American writer/performer. I was borned and raised in Washington Heights in New York City and currently live in Harlem.

Being a Ghanaian American Playwright is like …

Constantly introducing your culture to audiences. Growing up, it was incredibly rare to find my culture reflected in mainstream (Western) media so I always pulled references and inspiration wherever I could find them. From Coming to America to hit Nollywood films, I found inspiration anywhere; steering away from stories that only lifted up a singular narrative about the continent – war, struggle, strife, disease, etc.

Once I started writing, it became clear to me that I wanted to change the way the diaspora was reflected on both stage and screen. I’m naturally a comedic writer, so I always knew that my work would be largely comedic, but I also wanted to tell stories that meant something with characters that felt universal – that anyone could relate to.

What sparked the idea for School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play?

School Girls …” came to me many years ago. I went to boarding school in the States and always knew I wanted to write about my experiences in some way. My mother also went to boarding school in Ghana when she was young (the school that the play is based in actually) and it’s one of the interesting things we both have in common. Some time in 2014 or 2015, I came across a story about the Miss Ghana pageant from a few years prior. It recapped a scandal in which an American born bi-racial woman was brought from America to compete in the Miss Ghana pageant in what many people regarded as a clear sign that the Miss Ghana pageant officials thought they’d have a more competitive candidate with someone who had lighter skin. I thought the whole story was so fascinating and considering my deep journey to owning my own beauty as a dark-skinned woman, I thought centring a pageant in a play would work to easily tell a story about colourism. Next thing I knew, I was writing a scene about a group of girls and in a couple of weeks, it turned into the first draft of “School Girls …”

Tell us about your team

I am lucky enough to have a great team of people who I work with and not only believe in me, but understand my work and my mission. It’s truly a blessing because it’s been a long road in convincing theatres to give my plays a chance. When the opportunity to have School Girls … produced in the UK presented itself, I knew that we had to get the right team in place and that started with the producers. I had a long relationship with Jess Chase who was the Artistic Producer of the theatre in NYC who originally produced the play back in 2017 and she now works for the producing company, Mark Gordon Pictures. I trust her deeply and through her, we assembled an incredible team with Francesca Moody and now Idris Elba. I can’t begin to describe what it means for an artist to have a team of people they trust and depend on.

I also have to shout out my director Monique Touko who is absolutely incredible. It’s been a wild process with assembling a design team and casting the show being mostly remote for me as I was in New York for much of the time. She has brought together a fabulous team of artists for this production and she’s also just a wonderful person. I think she’s going to create a really fantastic production of this play – I really, really trust her.

Cast of School Girls; Or The African Mean Girls Play – Photo credit Manuel Harlan

Bringing this story to the UK and showing it at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre, how does it enhance the story and why did you choose this space?

I wish every playwright could have the welcoming and supportive experience I have had with the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre. They were big fans of the play and seemingly jumped at the chance to produce it. It was actually quite a long journey getting the play to the UK. I first came in 2018 and met with a bunch of theatres where I pitched the play to them and none were interested, so I sort of gave up on the dream of it happening. I was pleasantly surprised when the opportunity arose with The Lyric last year. They were/are so committed to making the play a success – I feel grateful that they will be the ones to introduce my voice to UK audiences.

What does the story of School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play mean to you personally?

The story of School Girls … is an incredibly personal one. I spent most of my life feeling insecure and inferior because of my complexion. I never saw any beauty in myself and always wished I would wake up and look like the women that I felt everyone else in the world valued and desired. It took me many, many years to own my beauty and I always felt that this play was the period at the end of that story for me. It took me all this time to be brave enough to write about the real and raw feelings I carried for most of my life. It means a lot to be able to share that story now and hopefully expedite the journey to self acceptance for an audience member who may still be struggling with those same feelings.

Which scene/character best defines what you love about this project?

I think what is so wonderful about this play is that everyone can relate to one or more characters. There is something about the experience of being a student that is incredibly universal. I love that so many audience members leave the show seeing facets of themselves in the girls – which is what I love most about the play. We’ve all had friend groups, been bullied, been the bully, struggled with anxiety or a certain course in school, etc. I love that people connect to the characters in the play in a visceral way – truly the most defining aspect of this play in my opinion.

Were you a mean girl or a good girl in school?

I was absolutely not a mean girl, ha! I was more of the theatre, dance and choir girl and all of my friends in my group were similar.

What is your favourite school memory?

I would say my favourite memories from school were performing in the big end of year showcase which was called “The Parent Weekend Show.” It felt like my own little version of Broadway and I revealed in being able to sing, dance and act in those productions every year. There was no greater feeling for me.

Considering your career evolution, where does this project sit on your checklist?

This is a massive box check for me. I have always, always, always wanted my work to make its way to the UK, so I can truly think of nothing greater. I can’t wait for audiences to meet and fall in love with the School Girls.

What’s next?

What’s next for me is actually preparation for my Broadway debut! I have a brand new play premiering on Broadway in September of 2023. It’s called Jaja’s African Hair Braiding and it takes place in a hair braiding salon in Harlem on a hot summer day. Similar to School Girls, it’s a comedic play of mostly women (there is one male actor in the show.) It’s 10 actors playing 15 characters and it’s so so fun. It is also being directed by Whitney White who just made her UK debut as a director with The Secret Life of Bees.

How do we keep up to date with you and your work?

I am most active on Instagram @Jjbioh but you can find me at that handle on every social media platform honestly. I like to keep it simple there, ha!

School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play runs Thursday 8th June – Saturday 15th July 2023 at Lyric Hammersmith Theatre.


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