NORFOLK — “Faint coronary heart by no means received honest maiden.” However wait.
Let’s replace that outdated noticed: “Faint coronary heart by no means received a fairest maiden contest.”
It does appear, judging from performs and films, that magnificence queens are ferocious creatures. And woe to the highschool that has two such dueling divas! Faint hearts don’t write good comedies both. Writing nice shtick takes guts for garters, a lawyer on pace dial and, if the playwright is admittedly fortunate, an viewers able to rock proper outta their seats.
Ghanaian-American playwright Jocelyn Bioh is simply such a gifted author. Her play “College Women; Or, the African Imply Women Play,” skillfully directed by Derrion Hawkins, who skilled at Outdated Dominion College, has discovered an appreciative viewers even down within the bowels of Chrysler Corridor.
Having made its means from off-Broadway New York Metropolis to revered regional theaters together with Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California and the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, “College Women” runs on the Generic Theater by July 23.
It’s a slight play, “impressed” (examine that phrase with authorized!) by the “Imply Women” movie and stage musical franchise. But it surely’s additionally akin to dozens of different nasty-girl/bully-boy works equivalent to “Heathers,” cheerleader films galore and boarding-school dramas, e.g., “Lifeless Poets Society.”
However there’s a serious distinction between this play and its generic kindred, a distinction signaled within the title phrase “African.” Bioh proclaims within the script preface that she drew on an actual boarding faculty (her mom’s alma mater, Aburi Women’ Senior Excessive College, in Ghana) and the equally actual Miss Ghana pageant of 2011. Within the pageant, a biracial (light-skinned) “American-born and Minnesota-raised” lady named Yayra Erica Nego received by claiming to have a Ghanaian father however by no means confirmed his identify or whereabouts.
“I believed that story was fairly rattling fascinating,” writes Bioh in her preface, “So I wrote a play impressed by it.”
Colorism clearly rankles the playwright, however within the age of Black Lives Matter, is it nonetheless an issue? Nicely, the play premiered in 2017, and in 2022, the “paper bag check,” the baleful follow of evaluating a Black particular person’s pores and skin to a grocery bag to verify it’s no darker, sadly, nonetheless counts amongst some benighted souls. How is that this painful topic a supply of hilarity? The reply: good writing and noteworthy appearing, together with the work of an eighth grader, and high quality path by Hawkins and assistant director Carla Turner. Dialect coach Louise Hollis likewise deserves credit score for creating the phantasm of constant Ghanian-inflected English.
Right here’s the appearing lineup on this grand diva throw-down, Generic type:
On this nook, we have now the reigning Imply Woman, Aburi senior Paulina, performed by Hampton College-trained standout Alexis Barbour. Paulina runs her group of 5 feminine followers with ruthless precision and unquestioned authority, till …
Enters the newcomer, the nicer and lighter-skinned Ericka (the Lindsay Lohan position within the 2004 film “Imply Women”). Generic’s Ericka is Vania Aursby, a junior theater main at Norfolk State College, with a low and wonderful voice and an appropriately dialed-back accent. And the way applicable, additionally, that our divas come from historically rivalrous HBCUs.
Nearly as good as the 2 leads are, make means for Lauren Clark as Mercy, certainly one of Paulina’s minions. One would by no means have guessed Clark to be a mere eighth grader at Larkspur Center College in Virginia Seashore. Mercy’s cousin, Gifty, is performed by gifted comedian Felicia Fields. Fields is an skilled native actor a number of years older than Clark, and the 2 come throughout like twin souls or Frick and Frack.
They’re always high-fiving, fist-bumping and interacting with stage enterprise galore. Ama, supposedly Paulina’s greatest buddy, is performed by Dasianae Cross, solely 15 herself and already an completed native radio star and actor, skilled partly by Hurrah Gamers (as was Lauren Clark). Kennedy Mayes, additionally a mere highschool freshman in actual life, has the unenviable position of Nana, Paulina’s favourite goal for body-shaming. Nana/Mayes bears it effectively and will get her personal revenge of types.
The grownup era at Aburi Excessive is represented by headmistress Francis (self-confident, role-modeling Micah Love-Sinclair) and the glittery, flamboyant Eloise Ampansah, a former rival of Francis’ from again in their very own faculty days. Eloise (performed by Kemi Layeni, a College of Virginia graduate and actor with nationwide credit) is the 1966 Miss Ghana, a title she by no means fails to say in self-introduction; she now works as a recruiter for the pageant. It’s she who pushes the “whiter is righter” agenda, euphemistically saying that she seeks a woman with “a extra common and business look” from the “different finish of the African pores and skin spectrum.”
Ericka fills her invoice, prompting Paulina to hunt out the caustic skin-bleaching lotions to lighten her personal darker pores and skin. The play’s dealing with of this determined transfer is a bit heavy-handed; the viewers in all probability doesn’t must see a prosthetic disfigurement. Paulina’s painful self-mutilation does, nonetheless, assist the viewers perceive one supply of her “meanness,” and he or she features our sympathy. Certainly, each dangerous character within the play has a backstory that redeems her to a better or lesser extent, additional proof of Bioh’s finesse as a author.
Moreover the painful subject of colorism, Bioh touches on one other “darkish continent” trope: the neocolonialist corruption that generally appears endemic in Africa. Right here it takes the type of recruiter Ampansah’s willingness to cowl up the reality a couple of contestant’s actual heritage to get a bonus. She guarantees the cover-up can likewise assist the financially strapped Aburi faculty obtain a pleasant donation if their pupil wins. It’s supposedly a win-win for all. That’s how corruption works.
Although I wouldn’t dream of unveiling who wins the wonder crown(s), I’ll gladly reward director Hawkins’ upbeat add-ons to Bioh’s play. The play already features a tune with applicable lesson-conveying lyrics: “The Biggest Love of All,” sung by Paulina’s clique. Much more germane are traces from “Phenomenal Lady” intoned as a voiceover in poet Maya Angelou’s personal unmistakable voice.
Lesser however bouncy add-ons embody a diva-themed dance quantity at first and a “Black Woman Magic” dance to conclude. A closing shout-out goes to painter Tumôhq Abney, whose African Kente-style visuals embody wall-sized heads of African ladies, certainly one of them lined with well-known ladies activists’ names, adorning an in any other case darkish and forbidding Chrysler Down Below area.
Begin your morning with in the present day’s native information
The Generic has introduced a full upcoming season, however the firm nonetheless has no reliable efficiency area to make use of. In case you might help, contact email@example.com.
Web page Legal guidelines is dean emerita of the Nusbaum Honors Faculty at Norfolk State College. firstname.lastname@example.org
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and a pair of:30 p.m. Sundays; by July 23
The place: Generic Theater, 215 St. Paul’s Blvd., Norfolk
Tickets: $18, normal admission; $15, college students, army, folks 62 and older; reductions out there for teams of 10 or extra.