Written by Victoria Myers
Photography by Tess Mayer
November 7th, 2017
In Jocelyn Bioh’s new play School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play, a group of teenage girls at a boarding school in Ghana compete over who will be the school’s entry for the Miss Ghana contest, and for their place in the social hierarchy of adolescents. School Girls is currently running at MCC, which marks Jocelyn’s first major production in New York City. Her other plays landed on The Kilroy’s list in both 2015 and 2016. She’s also an actress and has recently appeared in In the Blood, Everybody, Men on Boats, and The Curious Case of the Dog in the Nighttime on Broadway. We recently spoke with her about the inspiration behind School Girls, her writing process, and balancing both writing and acting.
I read that the play was inspired in part by a story about the Miss Ghana contest, and in part by your mother’s experience. At what point were you like, “I want to write a play about this”?
I always knew I was going to write a play about boarding school, because I also went to boarding school. I went to the Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pennsylvania, which is a very different kind of boarding school. It’s scholarship-based for a lot of children who have academic promise, but not necessarily the financial means to go to a really great school. So most of us were from inner city areas and stuff like that. It was a really unique experience, being a kid from New York City in the middle of Hershey, Pennsylvania in a boarding school. And my mom’s time in boarding school in Ghana was very unique and strange and interesting and fun. So I always knew I was going to write a boarding school play, I just didn’t know how or where. But this story about the Miss Ghana pageant from 2011 was really fascinating to me because it was so clear that they had found someone who was not Ghanaian and just lied about her Ghanaian origins because they thought they’d have a more competitive candidate if they had someone who was lighter skinned. I don’t know how I got the idea that I’d conflate the two into one play, but somehow it works. I think in high school is where young girls really experience feelings of insecurity and doubts and comparisons to other girls, and it just felt very obvious to maybe conflate them into one story.
Did you have a specific moment or a specific image that popped into head, like, “This is the beginning,” or some image or piece of dialogue or character where you were like, “This is my way into it”?
I like to say that my mom was kind of a mean girl because she said she really had to stick up for herself a lot when she was in school because she came from a lower class than a lot of her classmates. So I think that I was probably inspired by her, and she was my portal. And the main character is extremely loosely based on her before—I almost don’t want to say it is—she’s like, “What? I’m not a mean girl.” But I would say she’s my portal in terms of sticking up for yourself, defending yourself, and how that can be construed or veer off into mean girl land. So she was my way in.
Did you do any research for the play?
I did tons of research about the Miss Ghana pageant, and pageants in general. I obviously am a huge fan of Mean Girls the film, and also the book that inspired the film, Queen Bees and Wannabes. That was the origin of the subtitle. I just was like, “Oh, I’ll just use this as a subtitle to get people to read the play,” and then it kind of stuck. I did a lot of research about pageants and about that particular pageant in 2011. And then the rest was my imagination.
For your research process, did you do it before you started writing or as you went along?
It was as I went along. I like to just lead with where my imagination is taking me and then if I have a question about something that’s where I hit pause and get on the Google and figure things out. So it was really along the way, and I have continued to learn even in this development process, rehearsal process too, but it’s all been along the way.
You mentioned before about it being very, very loosely based on your mother. How was that for you, as a creative exercise, to fictionalize somebody who exists and their experience?
It’s kind of easy, because if you just are taking one small facet of their personality or a characteristic of theirs and then making up the rest, at least you have a small portal in. And it makes it very simple and fun to be able to play with where all the characters you know can go. What was most frightening, actually, was one of the characters being inspired from Erica Nego, who was the Miss Ghana contestant in the pageant. I felt like I had to take a lot of care. I don’t know her personally; I’ve never met her at all. I had to make sure I was taking a lot of care in not painting her character with one brush. Really giving her a lot of nuance and development, because she was the one character I didn’t know, but she’s also a part of the reason why I even wanted to write the play.
Are you visual when you write? Do you picture it all on stage?
I never really picture it all on stage. I never picture sets or costumes or anything like that. I just envision the people. The voices feel very, very clear to me, especially because I’m a comedic writer. It becomes very clear that I need to find the person who can set it up and deliver it in the right kind of way. So the people are always who are the most clear to me.
In the play, you’re playing with female archetypes. What was your process in terms of balancing what you wanted to say with the specific needs of a character and making them individuals?
The two lead characters were the clearest in terms of who they were, how they acted, who they interacted with. And then I started to build around that. Like this queen bee, what would her crew look like? What would make her feel like she was above all of them and that these were her servants, if you will, who made her feel good or made her feel better about herself? And from there, it was this kind of kooky group, which probably was what my high school group looked like—I think we thought we were popular, but we were all just nerdy theatre kids. In high school, everyone fits some sort of weird archetype. You fit into some sort of group or you are part of two groups. And that’s what’s very universal, so even though the characters in the play are very specific to Ghana and West Africa, I think there’s a universality to all of them that people who come to see the show will connect with.
Physical appearance is a theme in the show, which is something that probably every teenage girl has struggled with, but also a subject that is still a little taboo to talk about.
I think what was the most fascinating about that Miss Ghana pageant, that probably led me to end up writing a play about it, was that I was kind of baffled at the idea that Western standards of empirical beauty had somehow infiltrated an African society. How had so much value now been placed in someone who was lighter skinned when this is a country that nearly splits the equator? It’s innate and truthful to the nature of the country that everyone is supposed to have a relationship to the sun and have beautiful dark skin. So how that somehow has to now be in line with Western standards of beauty was fascinating to me. But I feel like that is also very universal—wherever you are in the world, somehow, some particular archetype or stereotypical version of beauty is made to be put on a pedestal and made to be the thing that everyone aspires to be, and makes everyone else who’s not close to that feel less than. And beauty pageants, sadly, have factored in a lot to that standard, specifically in the time that I placed the play, in the ’80s, where you could become a superstar if you won Miss America or Miss Universe. Using that all as an inspiration, I thought it could hopefully highlight that we are all beautiful because we are all unique and different and special. And hopefully that could be some sort of inspiration to a young teenage girl who’s perhaps struggling with these kinds of insecurities and learns to own her own beauty.
Why did you decide to set the play in the ’80s?
Because the Miss Universe pageant happened so recently—it was just in 2011—I wanted to create some distance from the story. I also happen to be super obsessed with 1980s culture. I just think it was such a fascinating time in our world and in our history, from music to fashion to entertainment. So that was my own little ‘80s female fantasy playing out there. I wanted to also play with the idea that the story could be timeless. If there was no mention of the year, it could still feel weirdly present today, which kind of just shows that we have a long way to go in terms of moving past beauty standards and how we uplift and raise up young girls to be very confident in who they are and what they can do in the world.
How do you think the new play development process can be improved?
The best step would be the step that MCC has taken in pulling the trigger and producing. A lot times, a lot of us playwrights—especially those of us deemed emerging playwrights, which is I guess the category I’m currently in—end up in this hamster wheel of development. Always doing readings, always doing student presentations, people reading your work, people who run theatres reading your work, giving you critiques, and then you go home and re-write and you never have the extra element of how it all will come together. A play is meant to be performed, not just read. I’ve learned so much in having the benefit of a rehearsal process and actually seeing it staged with full lights and costumes and sets. So I think if some more theatres took some chances on new playwrights and didn’t just help them develop plays but actually help them produce plays, it would be really informative and it would just be great.
You’re an actress, as well. How do you feel that that affects your writing?
I compartmentalize them both pretty easily. I never feel like when I’m working on a play [as an actress], I’m trying to help the playwright write a new play. I’m always just like, “I’m the actor trying to serve the playwright finding exactly what they need to find with the play.” But I do feel like I’m really sympathetic and empathetic to actors when I’m working on things [as a playwright]. I also find that a lot of my dialogue feels more truthful. I understand as an actor when I’m reading something that just feels so artificial and so untrue to how a character would actually reveal a story, and I try to really hone into that when I’m writing and write people who actually talk in a very natural way. I’m not a stylized writer in any way and so I just to be very truthful and naturalistic in my characters.
Have you found that there have been any challenges with getting people to take you seriously as someone who does both things?
It’s been tough in terms of people wanting to box you in. Specifically in TV, there are a lot of people who are slashes, writer-slash-actor: Issa Rae or Lena Dunham or Tina Fey or Abbi and Ilana on Broad City. It feels a little more accepted in that realm. In theatre it feels difficult because theatre is so time consuming. As an actor, you’re in a play for two and a half months, and it really kind of can be your life. It doesn’t really leave a lot of time to do anything else. That is true of being a playwright, as well. I think people are very confused by the concept of somebody who does both, and how they can equally devote enough time to them and be good at both of them. So I work really hard to show people, and hopefully be inspiring to people, that you can do both. I’m so inspired by so many actors, I’m so inspired by so many playwrights, and to be able to share that experience feels really important to me. Just for the future of theatre and where we’re going. There are people who have more than one talent and they should be able to do both and be embraced in both.
Have you encountered any resistance to that? In the sense of people wanting to box you in like you were saying? Or people saying things like, “Well, which one do you really do? And which one is the hobby?”
I think for people who don’t know me as well, or don’t know my work as well, I think they thought that one or the other was probably a hobby. But I feel like I’ve been very fortunate in that because I’ve refused to choose and I’ve had a lot of support, thankfully. And a lot of friends who have been forced to choose, who have really encouraged me like, “Don’t do it. You want to be a writer and you want to be an actor. You can do both and don’t let them box you in.” I feel very fortunate that I’ve had a lot of support, but I know that that is not usually the case.
What do you think the theatre community could do structurally or just in attitude to make it easier for people who want to do more than one thing?
Embrace them and give them the tools. I think anybody who wants to be an actor, with enough persistence and determination in auditioning and luck of the draw, you’ll be able to find yourself in a play and you’ll be fine. But if that actor does want to write a play, they should be able to be embraced by the community that they worked in as an actor to come back and work on developing plays that they’ve written. It would be awesome if they did that. It’s so simple but sometimes that’s all it is.
It is interesting that in theatre there are less people who do both than in film and TV.
I think that’s just because of the amount of time it takes. The amount of time it takes to be an actor in a play and rehearse one and be a writer who’s trying to write a play. I’m a very fast writer. I really can turn out a play in probably a week. There are some writers where that’s not the case—they need months and months and months to figure that out. And I think the assumption is, if you’re an actor who’s never written a play or never studied playwriting, you won’t know how to do that. Therefore, probably, it isn’t very good. But I think by virtue of the fact that I am an actor and have worked on so many plays, there is an understanding about a play and play structure that I get very well—I mean I did also happen to go to graduate school for playwriting, so I have an extra step in understanding play structure. But that’s half the battle. If they work on plays, then they understand plays and they probably understand the work put into making one.
What do you hope audiences take away from the show?
I think there’s a wonderful and amazing universality to school and high school and being part of your own little crew, whether they were popular or not. Wanting to be like the popular kids, or if you were a popular kid, what you did to maintain that status. I think all of that is really fun and exciting—and also heartbreaking and sad. All of the things that high school was for all of us. I hope that people can empathize and sympathize with these characters, even if they look nothing like them, sound nothing like them. That they can see facets of themselves in them. That’s the best I can hope for. And maybe that they laugh.