Having seen some dozen plays, both locally and in Manhattan, over the last few weeks, may I say one thing: Gosh, how I’ve missed live theater. After all the many pandemic months of “making do,” all the creative substitutes for onstage productions, my memory of the original experience had dimmed a bit. But spending just one evening at a new live show is a rejuvenating wake-up call.
And we have so much good local theater to indulge in: This week two plays merit attention for their entertainment value as well as their significant themes.
The Hangar opens its summer season on its new outdoor stage, a ¾-round under a tent that means the audience is both cool and dry. (Some productions will be indoors; this hybrid system affords more rehearsal time.) “School Girls,” by Ghanaian-American writer Jocelyn Bioh, is billed as “An African Mean Girls” –– and boosts that bitchy-teen tale up a few notches.
This time we’re on the patio of a Christian boarding school in Ghana, where the girls gather at plain wooden picnic tables to gossip in the shade (set by Czerton Lim; lit in a green leafy haze by Aja Jackson). And right off we see the cruel queen bee, Paulina (a smashing Devin Kessler), controlling her disciples with a verbal lash. She snatches the porridge that chunky Nana’s about to eat, reproaching her, and offers an apple instead —– then demonstrates how to take the tiniest bite: “Portion control!”
Nana (a marvelous Starnubia) succumbs, as do the others in their turn, because Paulina not only extols ideal slim looks as a passport to her clique but blackmails everyone with secret details from their personal lives. Squashing any competition, she’s determined to be the one chosen to enter (and win) the Miss Ghana 1986 pageant.
The girls are, every one, irresistible, lively and squealing in teen exuberance. Their cropped hair and school uniforms (yellow shirts and green floral skirts; costumes by Danielle E. Preston) suggest an innocence that even their later dance gowns can’t alter.
Bespectacled Ama (Morgan Williams) is studious and analytical; best friends Mercy (Alaysia Renay Duncan) and Gifty (Sarah W. Simmons) are the most high-energy. But even at their most raucous (when lilting accents and high-pitched voices obscure some of their banter), the girls all turn deferent and humble before their headmistress, Francis (a lovely and poised Shiro Kihagi). Two outsiders upset this not-quite-idyllic community. Ericka (Ciara Stroud), a light-skinned Ghanaian fresh from Ohio, has come “home” to complete her senior year. She’s rich, friendly, generous, inclusive –– everything that Paulina is not. And in no time the girls are switching loyalties. When Erica takes a notion to enter the beauty contest as well, the battle lines are drawn.
Enter Eloise (Latonia Phipps), stunningly coiffed and dressed, to select a candidate for the pageant. Formerly a Miss Ghana, she’s also an alumna. And from Francis’ skeptical looks, we can tell Eloise was once the queen mean girl herself.
What unfolds is realistic and perhaps inevitable but also profound and moving. Each of the eight women has a story that pulls us in, addressing self-worth and self-agency. And the playwright grounds their struggles in a particular African cultural reality: colorism, the discriminatory valuing of lighter skin tone within a community of color.
Lightening or bleaching one’s skin –– a legacy of colonialist tyranny –– is harmful yet pervasive; even today, more than 40% of African women practice this. With whiter skin comes social advantage–– a disturbing privilege that gives this “mean girls” tale a greater gravity than Tiny Fey’s original bullying story ever dreamed of.
Under Lydia Fort’s astute direction, “School Girls” is both hilarious and compelling –– not to be missed.
Returning after a two-year pandemic hiatus, Ithaca’s own Homecoming Players addresses a different social issue in “A Great Wilderness.” The playwright is Samuel D. Hunter, whose work faces the difficult and marginalized (his superb “The Whale” is about a 600-pound recluse). Here, in this 2014 play, he focuses on Walt, an older man who’s spent his life counseling gay teens sent to him to for “conversion.”
The Cherry Artspace has been turned into a cabin in the Idaho mountains, dulled and worn, complete with fraying sofa. It’s as rundown as Walt himself, who’s masterfully played by Arthur Bicknell. (Bicknell co-founded Homecoming Players, along with Rachel Hockett, who ably directs here.)
Walt doesn’t exactly have dementia but he forgets things and speaks a bit fitfully, his unsureness suggesting the unmooring of age. Actually, we come to see, it’s his own life mission that Walt is doubting, stumbling over. In his homosexual youth he was steered toward God and the belief –– now his life support––– that by continuous effort he could overcome what he was. Walt’s life work, in effect, has been denial of himself.
The play opens with the arrival of a young man (Trence Wilson-Gillem), whose desperate mother has sent him to Walt’s therapeutic retreat. Daniel is both bored and scared in this strange, musty environment, wondering if he’s going to be “shocked.” But as a kindly counselor, Walt only listens, offering safety and hope.
In his clumsy, caring manner, Walt invites the teen’s trust. Eventually, we see Daniel begin to share—– his feelings about boys, his passion for gardening. He goes off for a short walk by himself, and the majority of the play’s subsequent scenes involving waiting for his return. Walt’s ex-wife, Abby (Kristin Sad), arrives, along with her husband and Walt’s co-counselor, Tim (Greg Bostwick). She’s appalled that Walt has taken on one last client —– after all, they’d arrived to help Walt pack up the place and move to an assisted living facility. Understandably resistant, even cantankerous, Walt resists all her efforts to hustle him into oblivion and sell the summer camp they’d nurtured for so long.
Hours pass, and when Daniel doesn’t return, the local ranger (Elizabeth Livesay) and finally Daniel’s mother (Sylvie Yntema) are called in, each with a different interpretation of the boy’s departure (and of his sexual orientation). Search parties swarm the hills, where fire has now broken out; in the cabin, fretful indecisiveness and bickering divide these adults. As well portrayed by the actors, their moral compass grows ever shakier; that’s the “great wilderness.”
This play poses an intriguing but unresolved confrontation, with the final scene as unsettling as Daniel’s disappearance.
• “School Girls,” by Jocelyn Bioh, directed by Lydia Fort. At the Hangar Theater, Ithaca. Through June 25.
Tickets at https://hangartheatre.org/buy-tickets/ or 607-273-2787.
• “A Great Wilderness,” by Samuel D. Hunter, directed by Rachel Hockett. Homecoming Players at the Cherry
Artspace, 102 Cherry St., Ithaca. Through June 26. Tickets at https://homecomingplayers.org/.
Barbara Adams, a regional arts journalist, teaches writing at Ithaca College.