Pittsburgh Current Staff Writer
Markia Nicole Smith, a Point Park University graduate who plays Paulina in “School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, says her time on the Public stage is a full-circle moment.
“We’ve come to see shows here. Some of our professors were in shows here and now those same people get to come and see us do what they taught us to do,” she says.
Smith is not the only Point Park grad in the show. Castmates Atiauna Grant (Nana) and Shakara Wright (Gifty) also graduated from the Downtown university. All make their Public debut in “School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play,” written by Jocelyn Bioh and directed by Shariffa Chelimo Ali, running now through Dec. 8.
Originally selling out two off-Broadway runs, “School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play,” is based on the playwright’s mother’s experience at an elite boarding school in Ghana. Paulina (Markia Nicole Smith), the queen bee of the Aburi Girls’ Secondary School, assumes she’ll win the Miss Ghana pageant and a chance of becoming Miss Universe. But when Ericka (Aidaa Peerzada) enrolls, Paulina’s popularity plummets. Paulina, Ericka and her classmates find out if beauty really is skin deep in this comedy the New York Times calls “a gleeful African makeover of an American genre.”
Ali says she is excited to write her own chapter in the “greater book of ‘School Girls; or the African Mean Girls Play’” and demystify the African continent, specifically Ghana in particular.
“I feel very fortunate to have ideological and sociopolitical proximity to this work, being that I was raised in South Africa. And so there’s an immense sense of pride that comes with that,” she says. “We have all kinds of preconceived ideas about Africa and vulnerability and tragedy and pain and colonialism, and here is a joyful and dark and somewhat tragic but overall delightful depiction of the continent that celebrates its triumphs and nuances and complexities.”
The cast features actors of Nigerian and Ghanian descent and some who are from the African diaspora. Ali was born in East Africa. She says the play and the people onstage show that Black women are not a homogenous group.
“I think embracing our differences and our complexities and allowing ourselves to be seen and to see each other is quite a radical thing,” she says.
Grant says that she’s excited about what happens outside of the Public when the lights dim and the show ends.
“The conversations that will happen after the show are what I’m so excited for people to engage in, putting those big topics like colorism out, but in a comedic way so that it’s accessible, and it doesn’t feel like it’s something that’s so far away and so vague that they can’t talk about it,” she says.
Wright says this production is a start to bringing more diversity to the Pittsburgh theater scene.
“We need to keep pushing to tell stories of black women, of African people, of minorities that we’re not hearing,” she says. “I’m just I’m glad we’re doing it.”