‘African Mean Girls Play’ Explores Colorism, Groupthink

The play will be on stage at The Rep in Little Rock Mar. 2-20.

closeup illustration of Black girls matching black shoes and white socks that are part of their boarding school uniform

Aishé Keita was part of a mean girls clique in elementary school and as an adult, she still remembers the moment she decided to leave it. The tipping point was an incident involving a classmate ostracizing another girl in the group for her weight. 

Today the Seattle-based actress of Jamaicain and Malian descent is using that experience to inform her role as Ama, a mean girl’s best friend in The Rep’s production of School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play.

“I remember what it’s like to be in the cliques, see the cliques, hear the mean girls, it’s just familiar energy,” Keita says.

Written by Jocelyn Bioh, the play takes place at an all-girls boarding school in Ghana in the 1980s. The school’s reigning queen bee Paulina sets her sights on the 1986 Miss Universe pageant, but the arrival of a biracial transfer student from America changes the competition. The production had its world premiere off-Broadway in 2017 and was inspired by the real Miss Ghana Pageant of 2011 in which a biracial woman born and raised in the United States won the title, sparking a debate around colorism.

T’Keyah Crystal Keymáh, a Chicago-based actress best known for her work as a series regular on television shows like In Living Color and That’s So Raven, is taking on the role of Eloise Amponsah, Miss Ghana 1966. Although the play focuses on a group of teenage girls, Keymáh says it has a lot of universal life lessons.

“It seems to be just about high school girls, but it’s about humans who have to interact with each other and decide who they are, and where they belong, and what they want and what they’re willing to do to get it,” she says.

In addition to exploring the struggles of going along with the group or making decisions for yourself, the production also addresses colorism, an issue that still exists today. Philadelphia native Kayla Coleman plays a younger student named Nana and says setting the play in a time when girls living in Ghana were predominately dark-skinned provides a platform for exploring how Western beauty standards have infiltrated other cultures. 

“Colorism, texturism, featurism, fat phobia, all those really icky things that are present in our culture, sometimes if it’s too close we can’t really acknowledge it, but when you put it somewhere else, it’s like a mirror,” Coleman says. “So I think putting it in the ‘80s in Ghana in this all-girls school helps make that mirror really apparent to audiences here.”

The playwright uses humor to make these heavy conversations more palatable, and the actors also find comfort in sharing the stage with relatable peers. Awazi Jaafaru, a Nigerian American from Minneapolis who plays Gifty, says having a cast composed entirely of Black women has provided a supportive environment for performing.

“I think it’s a relief to be in an all-Black space,” Jaafaru says. “I think it’s very helpful and also very nurturing, too. I think it’s just really relatable as well.”

The cast hopes audience members, especially Black ones, will also find the show relatable and view it as a work that was created for them, by them and about them.

“I think this is a good opportunity to bring more Black people to the theatre, African people to the theatre, and just get a chance to feel at home too, like oh, I can see my people on stage and I can enjoy and have a good time,” Jaafaru says.

School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play will be on stage Mar. 2-20 at The Rep in Little Rock. Tickets and more information are available at www.therep.org.

T’Keyah Crystal Keymáh is also hosting a free public workshop Mar. 14 that will cover the basic tools of the acting trade. Class size is limited. Proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 and masks are required to attend. Email bdavis@therep.org to register for the workshop.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.