The power of theatre should not be underestimated, given its potential to alter mindsets with thought provoking narratives. Though it is the most neglected form within performing arts in Pakistan, it is impactful and the quality of work being done in theatre here is commendable. I realized it even better when, during a recent visit to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I went to watch playwright Jocelyn Bioh’s hit comedy, School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play.
Not even once I felt that we lag behind in any way. Be it our sets, our scripts and/or the actors. And I must admit, I came out of the show with pride.
Theatre artists in our part of the world are very dedicated towards this art form and their craft is excellent.
Coming back to School Girls, it premiered on November 15 at the O’Reilly Theater in Pittsburgh’s Downtown and is presently in its last week.
Directed by Kenyan-born, New York-based Shariffa Ali, the story is based in the Aburi Girls’ Boarding School, located in the Aburi Mountains in Central Ghana (West Africa). Thousands of miles away from home, as I watched the performance, I found myself in the midst of issues that struck me – patriarchy, racism, body image and gender disparity – as quite relevant to Pakistan.
Set in 1986, the 90-minute production featured an all-female cast including Markia Nicole Smith as Paulina, Aidaa Peerzada as Ericka, Candace Boahene as Mercy, Atiauna Grant as Nana, Shakara Wright as Gifty, Ezioma Asonye as Ama, Shinnerrie Jackson as Headmistress Francis and Melessie Clark as Eloise.
It revolves around a group of young women including Paulina (Markia), who is a self-proclaimed diva and wants to dominate the rest. She enjoys imposing her thoughts on other girls, especially Nana (Atiauna) who is chubby and finds it difficult to lose weight. However, there comes a twist in the tale when a new student, named Erica (Aidaa), joins the class; everyone except Pauline becomes friends with her as she wealthy and is fairer than the rest.
What was relatable and heart-touching for me was realizing how young women around the world are criticized for their dark skin tone or being overweight. Also, that young people everywhere have to deal with peer pressure at school that could lead to lifelong impressions and trauma.
Speaking to Instep post their performance, Melessie Clark, who essays the role of former Miss Ghana, Eloise, in the play, admitted how relevant these issues and that it is important to bring them to light.
“I think there is always room for improvement in every aspect, not just in theatre, but in other career paths as well,” she said, adding, “But Pittsburgh has such a great community of people and we have really tried to explore everyone’s experiences, not only just the ‘black experience.’ We hope that it reaches other cultures.”
Another actor Markia, who delivered a powerful performance as Paulina, stressed that body shaming is something everybody encounters, consciously or subconsciously.
“It is getting better as we are starting to see different body types represented, but I think we have our ways to go,” she said. “It is really important that this play touches upon body shaming, colorism and a lot of different things that I think anybody, whether they are black or white, can connect to.”
Surprisingly, one of the cast members, named Aidaa Peerzada, was of Pakistani descent. When I appreciated her brilliant performance, she responded “Shukriya” (thank you) and that’s when I learnt that she is the daughter of Imran Peerzada, who starred in the recently concluded drama serial Inkaar.
As we spoke of how people are obsessed with fair skin in Pakistan, Aidaa was quick to add that the concept of fairness creams is no different in the U.S. and they are as easily accessible there too.
School Girls brought these issues up and conveyed the message of acceptance and coexistence in societies. Art connects people beyond borders and this is where one realizes how certain issues are universal and impact lives, no matter what part of the world one resides in.