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Playing the Mean Girl of SpeakEasy's 'School Girls' :: A Talk with Ireon Roach

Wednesday May 8, 2019

On Monday the New York Times ran a story that three major American beauty pageant winners are African-American, the first time in history of the three pageants (Miss America, Miss Teen USA and Miss USA). That story comes to mind after seeing Jocelyn Bioh's smart, insightful "School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play," which the SpeakEasy Stage is presenting in its Boston premiere at the Roberts Studio Theatre through May 25.

Bioh's play is centered around a pageant — in this case, one taking place in 1986 at the Aburi Girls' Senior High School (an actual school in Ghana). Its winner will go on to the Miss Ghana pageant, then on to the Global Universe Pageant (modeled after the real Miss Universe pageant). In the days prior to the contest, a clique of the students rally around Paulina Sarpong (Ireon Roach), their leader, to win; but when new student Ericka Boafo (Victoria Byrd), an expatriate girl moving back to Ghana after living in America for years, transfers to the school, Paulina's chances dim, especially after Ericka charms the other girls with gifts and catches the eye of Eloise Amponsah (Kris Sidberry), the posh Miss Uganda representative who is taken by the appealing Ericka (and, more importantly, by the lighter shade of her skin).

In the play, Ms. Bioh uses the familiar tropes of the teen high school drama (think "Mean Girls") to explore deeper issues of racism, specifically the notion of colorism. Simply put, Eloise believes that with her lighter color, Ericka has a better chance of winning the Global Universe Pageant.

In the SpeakEasy production, the role of Paulina, the school's queen bee, is played by Ireon Roach, a Chicago native who is currently pursuing her BFA at Boston University. In the play, she has the difficult task of bringing a level of humanity to the imperious Paulina, who addresses her peers with vicious condensation. (She is mean: The play's biggest gasp comes when she fat shames on her peers.)

EDGE spoke to Ms. Roach about why she wanted to be in the play, why it is not a typical teen comedy, and her own coming out as a queer woman of color.

Feeling threatened

EDGE: What attracted you to this project? Why did you want to be in "School Girls?"

Ireon Roach: I had heard so much about the play and the love Jocelyn was gathering around the play and hadn't read it for myself! I read the sides and immediately fell in love with the familiar weight of colorist bullying and the levity of "Mean Girls."

EDGE: Tell us a little bit about your character, Paulina. What's she like and what happens to her in the play?

Ireon Roach: Paulina is a senior at Aburi, a private school in Ghana, and is most excited to take her final shot at the Miss Ghana and Miss Global Universe Pageants. This means she's also most threatened by new girl Ericka whom might have everything the recruiters are looking for.

Just another teen comedy?

EDGE: What is the significance of the play being set in Africa? And in 1986?

Ireon Roach: I think both the place and time present audiences with familiar iconography; the America narrative of strife in Africa and fun/pop of the 80s. Both are turned on their head. Ghana has seen this narrative in real time as well in 2011 with Erica Nego. (In 2009 Nego was Miss Minnesota USA and in 2011 was Miss Universe Ghana.)

EDGE: Why do you think that fans of the "Mean Girls" genre will enjoy this play?

Ireon Roach: I think "Mean Girls" fans will appreciate the teenaged humor of it all! It is serious, yet youthful. There are even call backs to iconic lines of the film!

EDGE: What would you say to folks who might dismiss "School Girls" as just another teen comedy?

Ireon Roach: I would remind them that we all, no matter our age, struggle with the images of ourselves as they compare to everyone around us in some way. And we all have to find that power for ourselves.

Her playwriting career

EDGE: Were you a "mean girl" growing up?

Ireon Roach: Absolutely not. I had a very small group of friends that mostly looked like me and we kept to ourselves. I definitely knew some "mean girls," however!

EDGE: How did you get your start in theater?

Ireon Roach: I took some drama classes in middle school and auditioned for an "arts school" in Chicago. Luckily, the theatre program was incredibly robust and involved in the city.

EDGE: You are both a playwright and an actor. Which do you enjoy more? Find more fulfilling?

Ireon Roach: As of late, I've found playwriting more fulfilling. I was introduced to all of this through writing spoken word poetry and am really compelled by mixing that into theatre.

Her coming out experience

EDGE: What was your experience coming out?

Ireon Roach: I don't know that I have? At least not in that traditional way of announcement. I felt very lucky to have this journey be very much my own and be surrounded by people that respect that!

EDGE: As a queer woman of color, do you think this play and its themes resonate more deeply with you? Why?

Ireon Roach: I think that one of the pillars of womanhood that these girls are holding onto is steeped in having a boyfriend to claim. I found this a heartbreaking construct around these girls, especially through the lens of my own bisexuality.

EDGE: What is the more surprising thing so far about being a part of this production? Maybe something you learned or learned about yourself?

Ireon Roach: I've been very surprised in how quickly I embody the HBIC trope and surprised by how fun that can be! Reel me in!

EDGE: What do you hope folks take away after seeing "School Girls?"

Ireon Roach: I hope folks leave knowing all that they have is enough for all that they want. You only lose when you stretch outside of yourself!

"School Girls; or the African Mean Girls Play" continues through May 25 at the Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA. For more information, visit the SpeakEasy Stage website.


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