Stage Corner: School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play

170813_MCC_SchoolGirls-WebsiteHomev01

Lightly inspired by the cult classic Mean Girls, but with much more depth, School Girls elucidates the tribulations five Ghanian school girls.  Set in an exclusive Ghanian boarding school in 1986, School Girls opens with its characters sauntering on stage runway style to obnoxious pop music.  Quickly enough, it is established that Paulina is Queen Bee, ruling the school and her friends with a toxic mixture of cruelty and camaraderie.  Everyone expects Paulina to be chosen as that year’s Miss Ghana – that is, until new student Ericka arrives.  American-born, biracial, and light-skinned, the spotlight immediately swivels off Paulina and onto her.

There are five school girls. Nabiyah Be portrays Ericka with a charm that quickly turns to barely-concealed fury at the play’s climax, a performance that seemed a little too big for the play but held the audience in absolute rapture with its utter intensity.  Mirirai Sithole and Paige Gilbert as Mercy and Gifty, witty and affable, bring an innocent light-heartedness. Abena Mensah-Bonsu plays Nana, an overweight girl, with a quiet strength and determination.  Nike Kadri plays intelligent Ama with a natural ease.  Last but certainly not least, Maame Yaa Baofo’s performance as Paulina brings forth depth and complexity to what might have otherwise been an irredeemable character.  While Paulina often seems to cross the line into utter, cartoonish villainy, Baofo lends her a simmering self-loathing that makes it difficult not to sympathize with her.  Not to be forgotten are Zainab Jah and Myra Lucretia Taylor as Eloise and Headmistress Francis, both of whom bring their own mean girl days into the fray.  In other words: a stellar cast.

Written by Jocelyn Bioh (an actress herself), School Girls is inspired by a real-life Miss Ghana: Erica Nego, an American-Ghanian biracial woman who embodies the “universal and commercial” look (read: light-skinned and vaguely European looking) that the Miss Universe pageant inevitably succumbs to.  It is with this context in mind that the play interrogates the toxicity of colorism.

Colorism, as defined by Alice Walker, is “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color.”  Rooted in anti-blackness, colorism is deeply entrenched in almost all communities of color.  In Egypt, where colorism, anti-blackness, and internalized racism run rampant, bleaching creams like Fair & Lovely littered the shelves of pharmacies and grocery stores. My darker-skinned cousins used it all the time, and even I, already pale-skinned for an Egyptian woman, was encouraged to stay out of the sun and use the bleaching cream whenever I developed a tan.

Fair & Lovely seems mild and innocent, however, compared to the more powerful bleaching creams used in School Girls, which have landed dark-skinned Paulina in the hospital multiple times, for burnt and bloodied skin.  Though the incidents are not directly discussed in the play, their obvious insidiousness nevertheless drew gasps from the audience.  The yearning for whiteness is clearly established in a scene where the girls cluster around Ericka and marvel at her light skin, asking her what bleaching cream she uses, and are stunned when she reveals that is her natural skin tone.  Ericka’s ethnically ambiguous looks attract Eloise, Miss Ghana 1966 and current pageant recruiter, and she sets her sights on Ericka as someone who would appeal to the Miss Universe judges more than Paulina, whose features embody West Africa.  Eloise, very dark-skinned herself, has nevertheless learned to play the game of white supremacy to her advantage.

School Girls treads a thin line between humor and horror, with laughs quickly turning to gasps and stunned silence.  Emotional beats are passionate and hard-hitting, while humorous moments are quick and sharp-witted and occasionally bombastic in fantastic way.  In one powerhouse scene, the five girls perform a rendition of Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” while auditioning for Eloise.  Without giving anything away, I will say that the scene is big and loud and staged in such a way that sets up a fantastic payoff that had the audience applauding wildly.

School Girls packs a big punch in a short 75 minutes that goes by in what feels like minutes.  With humor and heart, it tackles poignant issues of class, colorism, and intracommunity privileges under the cover of pink lights and mean girl nonsense.  School Girls is a breath of fresh air and an absolute delight.

Advertisements

Stage Corner: Come From Away

original

On September 11th, 2001, when the planes crashed into the twin towers, U.S. airspace was completely shut down.  This meant that 38 planes with 7000 coming into the northeast needed to be diverted: they ended up in Gander, Newfoundland, a small town with a population of less than 7000 people.  As the planes touched down, everyone in Gander needed to scramble and assemble to deal with this influx of temporary refugees that has unexpectedly landed on their doorstep.

It’s a strange concept for a musical, and certainly not one you would anticipate being this hilarious, energetic, and heartwarming.  Come From Away manages to create a stunning balance between the tragedy of 9/11 and the hilarity of this wacky situation.  The sung-and-spoken soundtrack moves from energetic Irish folk inspired music that makes you want to get up and dance to quiet, contemplative pieces.  Yet it is never abrupt or jarring.

Gander welcomed the refugees with open arms, even as they scrambled to find food, clothing, blankets, and shelter.  Small, memorable details are based off interviews with the actual passengers who were stranded in the small Canadian town for four days.  These details lends the show a touching intimacy and authenticity, along with an urgency that makes this compact 1hr40min show seem even shorter.

Come From Away also doesn’t shy away from the realities of 9/11 for people of Middle Eastern origin.  One of the characters is an Egyptian man who is immediately a target of extreme suspicion.  This culminated in a humiliating strip-search when a flight attendant refused to board the plane with him.  I liked the light touch here – the show didn’t gloss over it, but neither did they bang us over the head with it.

There’s a lot packed into this short show.  People die, fall in love, and break up, a female pilot tells her story, a rare Bonobo chimpanzee gives birth and loses her baby, and there’s even time to incorporate the reunion of Gander and their passengers ten years later! It is an incredible feat: a testament to human compassion, a reminder of human prejudice, and a subtle nod to the current refugee situation.  It’s great, hilarious, heartwarming fun!

(Also, I saw this with my friend, and upon exiting, her first words were: “I loved that.  Not as much as that show that was on steroids, but still a lot!” She means Great Comet! I didn’t even hint for her to say that. I’m so proud!)

Stage Corner: The Siege

Mustafa-e1505909303905-660x330The Siege is a theatrical retelling of  2002 siege of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, during the height of the second intifada.  The Siege was developed by  The Freedom Theatre, and here is a description from their website:

April 2002. Spring in Bethlehem. A group of armed men seek sanctuary in one of the world’s holiest sites as the Israeli army closes in with helicopters, tanks and snipers. Along with the fighters are some 200 priests, nuns and civilians. The siege lasts for 39 days, paralysing the center of Bethlehem and keeping tens of thousands under curfew. Inside the Church of Nativity the besieged are hungry and weakening. The smell of unwashed bodies and broken lavatories is mixed with the stench from the suppurating wounds of the injured. Two dead bodies are decomposing in a cave below the church. While the world is watching, the fighters are faced with the question of whether to struggle to the end or to surrender. No matter what they choose, they will have to leave their families and their homeland behind forever.

Palestine is rather personal to me.  I am not Palestinian, but I am Egyptian, which means that, like many Arab children, I grew up immersed in the struggle through friends, family, and the media.  So, walking in, I was prepared for it to be gutting.  It did not disappoint.

The staging is simple but eerily effective: in the center of the stage is a single free-standing set wall, with a doorway attached to it.  Fawanees (lanterns) dangle from the ceiling, a ratty carpet coats the floor, and heavenly light is cast upon the church, ensconcing it in otherworldly smoke.  It’s not an immersive show, but you do feel immersed.  The show begins with a man playing a tour guide, breaking the fourth wall as he takes the audience on a tour through the church.  (This is in English, though the rest of the show is in Arabic with supertitles, which makes everything more hyper-focused.)  Then, lightning fast, the scene switches to the siege, and cacophonous gunshots and explosions can be heard all around as six young men, one bleeding profusely, rush into the church for safety.

The cast is made up entirely of six men, soldiers who have gotten trapped in the church as the Israeli army surrounds them.  Though the show is quite short and fast-paced, each of these characters manages to establish some facet of their personality through incisive dialogue.  Some of these men are wholly committed to the cause, some are willing to die for it, some are more hesitant, some are willing to eat cats to survive, some would rather die than eat cats to survive.  Though they are shown grappling with tanks and gunfire, they also sing, make jokes, talk about their favorite foods and their family members and fiances.

They are also not afraid to get political (or I should say, the show is not afraid to get political), and I can see why pro-Israel factions were angered by this (The Public Theater cancelled this show twice).  The cast discusses the Israeli/Western propaganda machine that turns reality upside down, turning the oppressed Palestinians into the oppressors, while ignoring Israel’s occupation and continuing war crimes.  They talk about the pointlessness of negotiations with an international community that has already deemed them nothing more than terrorists while all they want is simply to survive and live in their land, which stolen from them by a violent invading regime.

In the after-show panel, the director said that her goal was to humanize men who had been explicitly demonized in the media for doing nothing more than defending their own land.  She also stressed the importance of critical thinking and independent research.  Her panel members impressed upon us the need to look beyond American media sources.  Honestly, for me, it was just incredible to finally be in a space where I didn’t feel like I was being gaslighted about Israel’s crimes.  Once, in a graduate classroom, I had to listen to a classmate deem harsh criticism of Israel as “hate speech” and have an entire class of graduate students nod in agreement.  It was…cathartic to finally see the reality of Israel and Palestine reflected in an American space.

One of my absolute favorite moments in the show, one of the most beautiful and most humanizing, was when two of the characters are praying.  The Palestinian Freedom Fighters are made up of both Muslims and Christians, and in one scene the audience is witness to one of the Muslim men kneeling on his prayer rug while the Christian man is praying with his priest.  They are right beside one another: it is a heart-warming juxtaposition.  Often, in the media’s haste to demonize Muslims, the occupation of Palestine is characterized as a “Muslims vs Jews” struggle, while Palestinian Christians are sidelined.  It is helpful to remember that there are many Palestinian Christians engaged in this struggle, and that the fighting has little do with religion.

The after-show panel ended by discussing the intersection of politics and performance.  Art like this isn’t just there to give people hope, but also to change hearts and minds, to give people (in this case, Americans) a different reality outside their propaganda bubble.  I certainly hope this show manages to change some minds, and that it continues to tour even in the face of opposition.

Stage Corner: Ghost Quartet

a2408801532_10When I was watching Ghost Quartet, the one thing going through my mind was, “This is so fucking weird.” Ghost Quartet is one hell of an avante-garde production, capitalizing on eclectic musical styles and unusual performance.

What is it about? I’m not entirely sure. It’s certainly not the easiest show to follow.  It consists of four intertwined stories, layered upon one another like matryoshka dolls, and told out of order.  The main story is that of two sisters named Pearl and Rose who become enemies.  I’m just gonna copy and paste from the original press notes: “A camera breaks and four friends drink in four interwoven narratives spanning seven centuries: a warped fairy tale about two sisters, a treehouse astronomer and a lazy evil bear; a retelling of Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’; a purgatorial intermezzo about Scheherazade and the ghost of Thelonious Monk; and a contemporary fable about a subway murder. Throughout these four stories two women cross paths, sometimes as strangers, sometimes as sisters, sometimes as lovers, sometimes as mother and daughter.”

It’s an odd duck of a show.  The entire production takes place in a tiny carpeted room, with some of the audience sitting on cushions on the floor.  Stage decorations are sparse; some lanterns hanging from the ceilings, old-fashioned carpets, and bottles of alcohol. You wouldn’t think that sitting in a small room watching four people sing would be so entertaining, but it is!

For me, what was truly spectacular to me about this show as the performances of the two leading ladies, Brittain Ashford and Gelsey Bell.  I had previously seen both of them in Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812, but in Ghost Quartet they truly have a chance to explore their vocal range.  I had already liked Brittain’s voice, but here she does so many more interesting things with it.  Gelsey Bell left me speechless.  There were moments when Gelsey was singing where I was literally sitting in my seat open-mouthed.

Not only are they both spectacular singers, but they are performers.  Gelsey flitted between various characters, from Pearl to the ancient storyteller Scheherazade to the ill Lady Usher, playing wise and droll and creepy with equal fortitude.  Brittain was equally capable in both her wide-eyed innocence and in her fury.  Together, Brittain and Gelsey make a formidable pair.

The other two performers, Brent Arnold and Dave Malloy, were only “fine” in comparison.  Brent barely featured, but I did enjoy his voice when he sang.  I am still unimpressed by Dave’s voice, but I was very happy to be sitting barely two feet from him as he played piano.

As the show runs through stories spanning seven centuries or more, switching from modern to ancient in a single song, it evokes a feeling of timelessness, like it exists cut out of the normal space-time continuum.  It naturally follows that it feels epic, like the stories of old, and as a creator it inspired me so much I wished I could bottle my feelings from that night and return to them whenever I need creative boost.

Stage Corner: Sweeney Todd

home-bgd-lottery2

Last week, I attended a performance of Sweeney Todd at the Barrow Street Theater.  Small and intimate and shedding the matter of the proscenium, the entire show takes place in a recreation of Harrington’s Pie & Mash, which is a London pie shop that has been in operation for 109 years! The set looks exactly like Harrington’s, with cafeteria style tables and dilapidated tiles.  This makes for an immersive, almost claustrophobic atmosphere that intensifies the performances.

And what performances they were! Pretty much the entire cast was stellar, with standouts for me being Michael James Leslie as Judge Turpin and Eryn Lecroy as Johanna.  Leslie has a deep bass voice that practically made the room quake.  Lecroy has a sweet, high soprano, probably typical of this role, but what made her stand out for me was her acting! She played Johanna with a kind of resigned snark and hidden simmering fury that made the character way more intriguing than she could have been.

Carolee Carmello as Mrs. Lovett was utterly hilarious, and rightfully received most of the laughs.  John-Michael Lyles was a very endearing and flamboyant Tobias.  And Jake Boyd played Anthony with a kind of wild exuberance and barely controlled panic (and his voice was fab!).  Hugh Panero was fine – I didn’t dislike him, and his voice is certainly good, but his acting left much to be desired. Perhaps it’s the direction, perhaps it’s the role, but I found him to be wooden and somewhat removed from the performance, as though he were a dimension away from all the other actors.

The show itself was so, so creepy! It made great use of the small room to play around with various lighting effects that enhanced the creep factor.  The actors totally gave in to camp, joining together in intense chorus that sounded nearly hymnal, a brilliant contrast given the show’s subject matter.  There was black humor in droves, including a song consisting almost entirely of puns about baking people into pies.

It was such a fun experience! I really felt like I had been transported to Victorian London, that I was a customer in a dingy pie shop.  I even had the pre-show meat pie and mash, which, sadly, were not to my taste.  Spices, people! Have you heard of spices? And why are you putting cheese in mashed potatoes, come on!

My first and only experience with Sweeney Todd was that Johnny Depp movie like ten years ago.  Needless to say, this was definitely an improvement on that, and a perfect show to see during Halloween month!

Stage Corner: Cats

cats-logo

Cats is known to be a rather divisive musical.  Some folks hate it, some folks love it.  When I won the lottery and did some research on it, I figured, well, there has to be something appealing about it considering how long it’s been running for! It’s so popular! Can it really be so successful on Broadway and yet have little to no appeal? As it turns out, the answer to that question is yes.

I’ll start with the little I appreciated.  The stage is quite cool, decorated in a really busy, cacophonous way, and the backdrop of the full moon is gorgeous.

That’s it.  And now the bad.

First of all, and this is probably more of a personal hangup, but I found it incredibly creepy watching humans crawling around and pretending to be cats. It felt like I was watching a demonic rave in hell.  Second, their costumes…I feel like there had to be a…less embarrassing and cringey way to convey that these folks are playing cats.

Third, I couldn’t follow anything that was happening. Was there anything happening? is there a plot? Who knows, not me.  I also didn’t like the music.

And finally: in general, when it comes to media I consume, I can forgive a lot of flaws, but one thing I can’t forgive is boredom.  If something bores me, that’s it, I’m done.  And Cats bored the hell out of me.  I had to work to convince myself not to leave at intermission.  I kept getting distracted, checking the Playbook to see how many songs were left until I could just get the hell out of there.

Cats could have been the silliest, most pointless, wackiest thing ever (and it was), and I wouldn’t have minded if it had kept me interested with good music or good storytelling. Since it had neither, I was basically suffering through a bunch of grown-ass adults dressed as cats running around singing random lyrics.

Stage Corner: War Paint

1200x630_WarPaint_OGFB

Yesterday I entered the War Paint lottery on a whim, since I was entering a bunch of other lotteries, and I didn’t really expect to win. I didn’t even know what the show was about when I put my name in. I think I had some vague notions of an actual war, but that is not what this show is about at all.  It is in fact using “war paint” as a euphemism for makeup to tell the story of rivals Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein.

Historically speaking, this was an intriguing story.  I had no idea Arden had had any kind of rivalry with anyone, and I’d never even heard of Rubinstein (apparently what was left of her company ended up being owned by L’Oreal).  According to the Playbill, the show tried to be as historically accurate as possible, with the exception of a condensed timeline, and so it was fascinating to witness the rise and fall of these two giants of industry.

What was not fascinating was the musical itself.  The music carried certain hints and flavors of 40s tunes that I like, but otherwise it was forgettable and uninspired.  I don’t think there’s a single song that has stuck with me (I mean, maybe Fire and Ice?).  Staging was quite basic as well.

Christine Ebersole as Elizabeth Arden did fine, though she didn’t wow me.  I did very much enjoy Patti Lupone as Helena Rubinstein, however.  She was given most of the comedic lines, which she delivered fantastically.  I actually found myself much more invested in the spoken dialogue than in any of the music.  John Dossett and Douglas Sills as Tommy Lewis and Harry Fleming were practically indistinguishable, though perhaps that was intentional.  The rest of this small cast didn’t have very much to do, so there were no particular standouts.

And, not to go into some heavy discourse here, but the hodgepodge mix of varying feminisms was somewhat jarring.  Makeup was praised “war paint” and talked about as if it was the one thing that could raise a woman up.  “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones,” Helena Rubinstein famously said.  In the show Rubinstein also muses on her own unusual beauty: her dark hair, her Slavic nose, and insists this is what makes her unique. In one touching moment, she reads a letter from a girl who wonders why she is still ugly after using makeup.  Arden and Rubinstein also frequently muse on their roles as women in a man’s world.  Through it all runs the thread of makeup as empowering and improving lives.

Then, at the very end of the show, when Arden and Rubinstein finally talk to each other, Arden wonders, “Did we free [women] or enslave them?” Yet this throwaway line, sung somewhat abruptly in the final song, feels like an afterthought, tossed in just to satisfy those who might raise issue with the portrayal of makeup.  It is certainly never given appropriate weight, or even appropriate time.  One the one hand I understand this decision given that the story is, after all, about two women who pioneered the makeup industry.  On the other hand, if that line about enslaving women was going to be included, I would have liked to have seen some more foreshadowing of it throughout the rest of the show.

Overall, I didn’t love this, but I didn’t dislike it either.  I certainly enjoyed the show as a learning experience and Patti Lupone is a master at delivering comedic beats.  But would I recommend it? Not really.