Written by the award-winning writer/performer Joycelyn Bioh …
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 director Monique Touko about how she brought this play to life on stage at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith …
Please introduce yourself.
My name is Monique Touko and I’m the director of School Girls; Or The African Mean Girls Play.
I know you’ve worked across multiple outlets but which would you say came first; film, tv, radio or also where does your passion lie?
The first is definitely theatre. I did stagecoach, and youth theatre, weirdly starting that path just simply as a hobby not really knowing it could be a career. I actually wanted to be a barrister when I went to university and did history and sociology. So, theatre’s definitely my first love. It’s where I learnt craft and precision. And through my assisting journey up until now and now being able to kind of make professional work, I would say theatre is the foundation for a lot of the stuff that I do. TV and film is something that I’m increasingly getting close to getting involved in and then radio I do with my YouTube platform. I’m half Zimbabwean and half Cameroonian, born in South London.
What would you say drew you to School Girls … or what made you want to direct this particular play?
So many things. It felt like it came at the perfect time in my career, it felt like this was the perfect writer to go on this journey with, particularly an American writer and having that relationship was super exciting. The opportunity to work at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre. The opportunity and the responsibility of casting this play because so many girls wanted these parts, so to find the right synergy amongst the cast was like a real responsibility that I thought I could do. And also, anything to do with diaspora, to do with Africa and to do with young people in youth, I like depicting the youth and they’re the main themes that draw me to the play.
I know you just mentioned Jocelyn the writer. But could you maybe tell us more about the team who’s working on this play so creative team and cast as well?
We’ve got a fantastic team, three of the people that are part of the creative team I’ve worked with previously. Shiloh Coke, who’s doing the composition I’ve worked with her on the clinic, same with Paul Wills the set designed and Matt Haskins the lighting designer. I’ve never worked with Tony Gell before so this is a really nice opportunity to have past collaborators as well as new collaborators. I think we’re all getting on really well and just making the best possible work. It’s lovely to work with an American writer and just have that kind of guidance from overseas and also Jessica Chase whose the lead producer from America has been very involved in the project as well. And Francesca Moody has also been overseeing and just ensuring that the vision and the way it was in the US can also translate to a UK stage.
Was there anything, in particular, you really wanted to focus on within the script?
Not to give away too much, the idea of colourism and the extent that people go in order to look lighter was something that really drew me because in terms of personal experience; it’s something I can really relate to. I think the idea of girls being in that space of coming of age, changing, evolving, puberty, and the idea of becoming a woman and what that means was something that was really intriguing and what I wanted to lean into. Also, this interesting relationship between Ghana and America which is expressed in the play and I feel like a lot of my plays do this where it’s African versus the West and how that interacts as well and how that kind of shapes you as a person to kind of navigate the world. I think there was something about setting up girls that were distinct from each other, I feel like a lot of the time when black females are depicted it becomes this one-dimensional kind of portrayal. What’s really lovely is we’ve got eight really lovely, beautiful women on stage and they’re all very different and that’s something we wanted to lean into.
Were there any moments you found particularly challenging working on this play?
I wouldn’t say it was a challenge, but I would say that just ensuring that for my actors it’s a safe room for things to come up, for people to feel like they are heard and seen. But also trying to make a clear distinction between what the character is going through versus what the actor is going through so that it becomes a safe space and it’s something they can do eight times a week. Another challenge, I’m so used to also working with the writer in the room, so it’s been quite strange to not have Jocelyn there, I miss her dearly. Having that kind of director-writer relationship is something that’s been different from other processes.
Please share a memorable moment …
There have been so many moments of just genuine laughter and synergy. I remember on the first week when we watched a documentary specifically about colourism and we all had a good hour of just talking about our own experiences, and you’re just aware of the fact you’re in a room, at the Lyric; you’re all women. I think the space we’ve been able to create has allowed for genuine enjoyment and, I’ve got really close to those actors and feel like we’ve all gone on a journey. They’re all aware of the responsibility of this play, so yeah, it’s been joyous. I can’t really pick a moment.
Would you say you were a mean girl or a good girl in school?
I was definitely a good girl. I wasn’t a mean girl. I was quite good at not being stuck and just being a social butterfly, dipping into certain groups. I definitely chilled sometimes with mean girls but I wouldn’t say I necessarily had that trait. And also, I went to an all-girls school so kind of that dynamic of girls and how they can be in quite a confined space is something I can one hundred per cent relate to and have a lot of knowledge on.
Is there maybe a particular memory from your own time at school that you now see reflected in the play?
It just really takes me back, particularly that first scene where they’re all around the table. It takes me back to the common room when I was in sixth form where the convo is steered in such a way that you have to get all of this information out because you’re about to go to lessons and just that idea of verbal diarrhoea of just wanting to say everything to your friend and connect with them before you have to get into work. And also, just how much of a bubble it was at school. I was saying to my friend that it’s only now that I’m getting older that you notice seasons changing or just things that when you’re at school and that young you’re just so present to the point where it’s a bit naïve, you’re just there just existing. So, I think that’s the one thing we’re trying to create on stage is this bubble and this world that feels like its kind of quite fixed and something that really occupies the girls’ minds and something that is inescapable because that’s what school felt like to me, a really tight bubble.
Where does his project sit on your checklist considering your career intentions?
So this would be my sixth professional production I think. I actually had a production at Stratford East which was Gone Too Far which was also proscenium arch. This is the second proscenium arch show that I’m doing so it feels like all of the learning that I needed to do in order to prepare for this show has been done. I now have the contacts and outreach and the acknowledgement to ensure that people feel confident in my directions to even get the job initially. It feels like people understand what kind of work I like to make – a show about Black girls, a show about Ghana and a show about young people – it falls in line with the work I’ve done previously.
What does School Girls; Or The African Mean Girls Play mean to you personally?
Just being able to have the courage to take it on, it’s had a life, it’s existed before so there’s that pressure for it to translate here. If I was any younger or if I was more inexperienced than I am this play would feel really daunting but I feel like it’s come at the right time where I’m able to handle the challenge. See the poster on the tube and not completely let it consume me. It’s also just where I’m at as a woman, personal life and so many things, [that] I’m able to cope with a project of this scale.
I’m actually wanting to take quite a long break after this because this is now the third show that I’m doing and it’s only June. I’ve literally been back-to-back since February with Gone Too Far, We Need New Names and this is the third one. I’d like to try and pursue some film and TV directing in the last part of the year, I’d love to do another drama school show. I’m also talking to Paula who worked on Gone Too Far about a show potentially at The Bush next year. So I’m just trying to curate my next year to ensure that there’s quality but I’m not overworking.
How do we keep up to date with you and your work?
On my Instagram and my Twitter is Monzabout which shortens my name and my friends say Monica is everywhere so Monzabout and I also have a website called MoniqueTouko.com so people can check it there.
School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls play runs Thursday 08 June – Saturday 15 July 2023 @ Lyric Hammersmith