Having watched several dozen performances, both local and in Manhattan, over the past few weeks, I can say one thing: damn, how I miss live theater. After so many months of the “money-making” pandemic, of all the creative substitutes for stage performances, my memory of the initial experience has faded a bit. But spending just one night on a new live show is a rejuvenating wake-up call.
And we have so many good local theaters to indulge in: this week, two plays are worth a look for both their entertainment value and important themes.
The hangar opens its summer season on its new outdoor stage, ¾ round under a tent, which means the audience is cool and dry. (Some productions will take place indoors; this hybrid system allows for more rehearsal time.) Ghanaian-American writer Jocelyn Bioch’s Schoolgirls is billed as “Mean African Girls” and adds to this bitchy teenage story somewhat. notches.
This time we’re in the backyard of a Christian boarding school in Ghana, where girls gather around simple wooden picnic tables to gossip in the shade (decorated by Cherton Lim; lit in green haze of leaves by Aya Jackson). And right away we see the brutal queen bee Paulina (the devastating Devin Kessler) controlling her students with a verbal whip. She snatches the oatmeal fat Nana was about to eat, chiding her, and offers her an apple instead—then demonstrates how to take the smallest bite: “Control your portion!”
Nana (the marvelous Starnubia) succumbs, as do the others, in turn, because Paulina not only extols her ideal slender appearance as a pass to her clique, but also blackmails everyone with secret details from their personal lives. Overcoming any competition, she is determined to be chosen to participate (and win) in the Miss Ghana 1986 pageant.
The girls, each, are irresistible, alive and squealing in teenage exuberance. Their cropped hair and school uniforms (yellow shirts and green floral skirts; suits by Danielle E. Preston) suggest an innocence that even their later dance dresses cannot change.
The bespectacled Ama (Morgan Williams) is diligent and analytical; best friends Mercy (Alaycia Renee Duncan) and Gifty (Sarah W. Simmons) are the most energetic. But even in their most raucous moments (when the rhythmic accent and high-pitched voices hide some of their banter) the girls are all respectful and humble in front of their headmistress Frances (the sweet and level-headed Shiro Kihagi). Two outsiders upset this not-quite-idyllic community. Erica (Ciara Stroud), a light-skinned gank fresh out of Ohio, has returned “home” to finish her senior year. She’s rich, friendly, generous, inclusive – everything Paulina isn’t. And in the blink of an eye, girls change loyalty. When Erika comes up with the idea to enter a beauty pageant, the front line is passed.
Eloise (Latonia Phipps) enters, stunningly coiffed and dressed to select a candidate for the pageant. A former Miss Ghana, she is also an alumnus. And from Francis’ skeptical eyes, we can tell that Eloise was once a queen herself, a miserly girl.
What unfolds is realistic and perhaps inevitable, but also profound and touching. Each of the eight women has a compelling story about self-worth and self-respect. And the playwright bases his struggle on a particular African cultural reality: colorism, the discriminatory appreciation of lighter skin tones within the community of color.
Skin lightening or bleaching, a legacy of colonial oppression, is harmful but widespread; even today it is practiced by over 40% of African women. With whiter skin comes a social advantage, a disturbing perk that gives this “bad girl” story more seriousness than the original Tiny Fey bullying story ever dreamed of.
Under the insightful direction of Lydia Fort, Schoolgirls is both fun and compelling and not to be missed.
Returning after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, Ithaca’s own Homecoming players are tackling another social issue in The Great Desert. The playwright is Samuel D. Hunter, whose work faces hardship and marginalization (his superb “The Whale” is the story of a 600-pound hermit). Here, in this 2014 play, he focuses on Walt, an older man who has spent his life counseling gay teenagers sent to him for “conversion.”
Cherry Artspace has been turned into a cabin in the mountains of Idaho, drab and run down, with a worn sofa. He is as beaten up as Walt himself, played masterfully by Arthur Bicknell. (Bicknell co-founded Homecoming Players with Rachel Hockett, who ably manages here.)
Walt doesn’t exactly have dementia, but he forgets things and speaks a little haltingly, his insecurities suggesting that he’s parting ways with age. In fact, we come to the conclusion that Walt is stumbling in doubt about his mission in life. In his homosexual youth, he was directed to God and the belief—now his life-support—that by constant effort he could overcome what he was. In fact, Walt’s life’s work was self-denial.
The play begins with the arrival of a young man (Trence Wilson-Guillem) whose desperate mother has sent him to Walt’s asylum. Daniel is both bored and scared in this strange musty environment and wonders if he will be “shocked”. But as a good advisor, Walt only listens, offering safety and hope.
In his clumsy, caring manner, Walt inspires confidence in a teenager. Eventually, we see Daniel begin to share his feelings for boys, his passion for gardening. He goes on a short walk alone, and most of the subsequent scenes of the play involve waiting for his return. Walt’s ex-wife, Abby (Kristin Sad), arrives, along with her husband and Walt’s co-adviser, Tim (Greg Bostwick). She is shocked that Walt has taken on the latest client – after all, they’ve come to help Walt pack and move into the nursing home. Understandably reluctant, even grumpy, Walt resists all of his attempts to send him into oblivion and sell the summer camp they’ve cherished for so long.
Hours pass, and when Daniel doesn’t return, the local ranger (Elizabeth Livesey) and finally Daniel’s mother (Sylvie Intema) are called in, each interpreting the boy’s departure (and his sexual orientation) in their own way. Search parties are swarming on the hills, where a fire has now broken out; in the salon, these adults are separated by capricious indecision and quarrels. As well as the actors portray, their moral compass becomes increasingly shaky; this is the “great desert”.
This play presents an intriguing but unresolved confrontation with a final scene as unsettling as Daniel’s disappearance.
• “Schoolgirls” by Jocelyn Bioch, directed by Lydia Fort. Hangar Theatre, Ithaca. Until June 25th.
Tickets at https://hangartheatre.org/buy-tickets/ or call 607-273-2787.
• The Great Desert by Samuel D. Hunter, directed by Rachel Hockett. Homecoming players at Cherry
Artspace, 102 Cherry Street, Ithaca. Until June 26th. Tickets at https://homecomingplayers.org/.
Barbara Adams is a regional arts journalist who teaches writing at Ithaca College.