School Girls… and Colorism, Beauty, and Self-Esteem in Women, Girls, and Femmes

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What is colorism, and how do we combat it? Who decides what is beautiful? Why are girls raised to compete with each other? Playwright Jocelyn Bioh and experts Afia Ofori-Mensa of Princeton University and Maryann Jacob Macias of National Crittenton join host Ruthie Fierberg to explore the questions raised about the roots of colorism and how to check your own bias, beauty standards and how to advocate for broader definitions of beauty, self-esteem and how to raise girls and women to know our own self-worth in this episode tied to Off-Broadway’s Lortel-winning and Drama Desk-nominated comedy SCHOOL GIRLS; OR, THE AFRICAN MEAN GIRLS PLAY.

Purchase the play here.

When SCHOOL GIRLS; OR, THE AFRICAN MEAN GIRLS PLAY first hit the stage at MCC Theater in 2017, we witnessed the birth of a new powerhouse voice in the theatre with playwright Jocelyn Bioh. Set in Ghana in 1986, SCHOOL GIRLS is “the African Mean Girls Play” for a reason. It’s got all the comedy and all of the hallway politics of Tina Fey’s MEAN GIRLS. As the five of girls of the in-crowd—led by beauty Paulina—prepare for the Miss Ghana pageant recruiter to scout at their boarding school, things get ugly. The arrival of bi-racial transfer student Ericka (a light-skinned girl who grew up in the States but whose father is Ghanaian) throws a wrench in Paulina’s plans. The recruiter, Eloise, must think about who (and what type of beauty) could elevate Ghana to the worldwide stage in the Miss Universe pageant.

Listen for some real talk and actionable steps to create a world with more acceptance and support—because that’s WHY WE THEATER.

Referred to in this episode:

Create the Change:

  • Write letters to the publisher.
  • Send letters, emails, tweets (as someone who worked for a magazine, yes we really do read it all) either to praise the diversity of people you see in their pages—editorial and advertising—or to point out the lack thereof and demand a change. Letters to the editor will also work.
  • Put your money where your mouth is.
  • Buy make-up from brands with a wide spectrum of shades—even if your shade is lighter.
  • Buy from brands that support your ideals—and let your friends know who these businesses are so they can join you.
  • Broaden the idea of the protagonist
  • Read, borrow, and purchase books with protagonists of color. Expand your horizons while showing that the readership for these stories is wide. As this writer observes: Black Books Are for White Children, Too. Here are some lists to get you started: 10 Books With South Asian Characters You Should Read in 2020; Multicultural Book Recommendation for World Travel From the Safety of Home.
  • Lift up women in front of other women.
  • Compliment girls for things they’ve done, not how they look.

Why We Theater is part of the Broadway Podcast Network, edited by Derek Gunter, and produced by Alan Seales. Follow us @whywetheater on Instagram & Twitter.

Our theme music is by Benjamin Velez. Hear more at

Our logo is by Christina Minopoli. See more at

Special thanks to Dori Berinstein, Leigh Silverman, Patrick Taylor, Tony Montinieri, Elena Mayer, Wesley Birdsall, and Suzanne Chipkin.

Connect with Ruthie!



Jocelyn Bioh, playwright

Jocelyn is a Ghanaian-American writer and performer who wowed audiences with her affecting performances in works such as Broadway’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Off-Broadway’s An Octoroon before bursting onto the scene as an essential playwright of the American Theatre. School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play marked her playwriting debut, having earned her master’s in playwriting from Columbia University. School Girls won the 2018 Lucille Lortel Award for Best Play and was nominated for the Off-Broadway Alliance Award and Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play. Her play Nollywood Dreams was set to premiere at MCC Theater, though it has been postponed due to COVID-19 shutdown and we cannot wait for it to come back with a vengeance. She is also working on a musical Goddess, among other projects.

  • @jjbioh


Afia Ofori-Mensa, Princeton University

Afia works at Princeton University, where she designs and directs initiatives to support undergraduates from underserved populations in pursuing advanced degrees and becoming professors. She arrived at Princeton after nearly a decade on the faculty and staff of Oberlin College, where she was Assistant Professor of Comparative American Studies and Africana Studies, Assistant Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, and Director of Undergraduate Research. Afia earned her PhD and MA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and her BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania. An educator, actor, photographer, and writer, she is currently working on a book manuscript tentatively titled How to Win a Beauty Contest (Not an Instruction Manual): A History of the United States through Pageantry. Learn more here.


Maryann Jacob Macias, National Crittenton

Maryann is the senior director at National Crittenton, an advocacy organization that catalyzes social and systems change for girls and gender expansive young people impacted by chronic adversity, violence, and injustice with a focus on root causes and cross-system approaches. We support the attainment of our vision in which girls and gender expansive young people can define themselves on their own terms and be respected and supported without fear of violence or injustice. From 2013-2018, she managed a diverse portfolio of grants at the Atlantic Philanthropies, a global grant making foundation dedicated to advancing opportunity and promoting equity and dignity. Prior to that, she held advancement and program positions with the Feminist Press at CUNY, Poetry Society of America, and the National Book Foundation/National Book Awards. She received her BA in English from the City College of New York, CUNY; her MFA in Creative Writing from Pine Manor College; and a Certificate of Professional Achievement in Human Rights from Columbia University.

  • @NatlCrittenton @MAJacob5


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