When Minneapolis native Erica Yayra Nego won the Miss Ghana title in 2011, it touched off a global debate on colorism, or prejudice based on shades of skin color.
The controversy comes home when the Jungle Theater opens "School Girls, Or: The African Mean Girls Play," a comedy inspired by the 2011 Miss Ghana contest.
The Ghana part of the story stuck in the mind of New York playwright Jocelyn Bioh, whose parents grew up in the African nation. Bioh was already toying with writing about the hierarchy of Ghana's all-girl boarding schools, based on all her mother's tales. After reading a newspaper story about Nego, Bioh wondered if she could combine the two for a fictional narrative.
"It was a big scandal because she is American-born and she's biracial," Bioh recalled. "The idea was: Who is she to win Miss Ghana, because she was both lighter-skinned and biracial? It seemed like pageant officials were thinking they had a more competitive candidate (to advance to compete for Miss Universe) if they chose someone who was lighter-skinned. I was fascinated by that, so I started writing and, 27 drafts later, 'School Girls, Or: The African Mean Girls Play' was born."
Twin Cities theater artist Sha Cage, who directs the Jungle production, read those stories, too. It was the Minnesota connection that sucked her in.
"I had read about Jocelyn's impetus for the story, this controversy around the biracial Miss Ghana and whether she was really African since she didn't grow up in Africa and they were supposedly unable to link her father to any specific region. And she was from Minnesota," Cage said.
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"My radar went off right away. Colorism is an issue that not just our community here but every community is dealing with."
'OWNING MY SELF-WORTH'
Although "School Girls" was inspired by actual events and is very much a comedy, it's also personal for Bioh. Colorism is "something I've dealt with as a performer and as a human being," said Bioh, who's also an actor who appeared on Broadway in "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" and starred in the original off-Broadway cast of "An Octoroon." "I'm the child of two Ghana immigrants and I am a dark-skinned woman.
"I wanted to try to describe the insecurity of not seeing beauty in yourself because you don't see examples of people who look like you and who are regarded as beautiful," added Bioh, who landed writing gigs for the TV series "Russian Doll" and "She's Gotta Have It" based on the success of 2017's "School Girls." "It's personal because I had to reckon with my truest feelings about my journey to owning my self-worth. If the play can help people skip some of the embarrassing amount of time it took me to get over that, I would love it. I'd love it if it could be healing for other women who have felt that insecurity."