Heather Agyepong on finding her dream role in 'School Girls'

The actress in Jocelyn Bioh's School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play shares how the show celebrates dark-skinned Black women while having universal themes.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

“This show really feels like a catalyst for conversation,” declared actress Heather Agyepong, who is starring in the U.K. premiere of Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play. The show played off Broadway in 2017.

Now running at London’s Lyric Hammersmith, the 1980s-era story sees Paulina, the queen bee at Aburi Girls Boarding School, expecting to be recruited for the Miss Ghana pageant. But the arrival of a lighter-skinned transfer student, Ericka, throws everything into doubt.

And yes, that title is no coincidence. “You’ll see a lot of similarities with Mean Girls and what happens within female groups,” Agyepong said. That’s so fetch! But the hilarious script also taps into deeper issues of identity, colourism, and the challenges facing all teenage girls.

London Theatre spoke to Agyepong during her second week of rehearsals about why this is her dream show, how she tapped into her real-life Ghanaian heritage, and why this show's premiere is a landmark moment for Black female representation in U.K. theatre.

Book School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play tickets on London Theatre.

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What drew you to this project?

I literally hoped and prayed for this role. Someone gave me the playscript a year ago, and I was just blown away. It’s so much fun and so intelligently written – the writing is just spectacular. So when I heard it was coming to the U.K. I was like, “Thank God,” and getting the job was an absolute dream.

It balances big issues with humour, right?

Yes, it’s laugh-out-loud funny. We were doing the read-through and we were just crying with laughter! It’s this celebration of Black joy – it opens your heart and then it breaks it.

It covers big topics around beauty standards and friendship. But Jocelyn [Bioh], the writer, said she didn’t want anyone to feel preached to. You’re just laughing, and then there’s poignance and truth, too.

What’s the story about?

It’s set in 1986 in Ghana at an all-girls boarding school, and they’re looking for the next Miss Ghana; the recruiter comes to the school. That’s the beginning of the action, and we see how that affects people’s friendships and self-esteem. There have been 60 productions of this play in America – it’s been beyond successful there.

So with the title, are we riffing off Mean Girls?

Yes, you’ll see a lot of similarities with Mean Girls, and what happens within female groups sometimes. I think what’s beautiful about this show is that it’s universal and also specific.

What’s exciting is we’ve had a lot of conversations about Black men in theatre, like For Black Boys [Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy], but there hasn’t really been a show centred around dark-skinned Black women. This is our time to highlight our specific issues.

We do have a drama therapist coming in [to rehearsals]. These issues can be triggering, and the Lyric wanted to make sure we’re all OK. We relate to the show so much: we all have a version of feeling unattractive or comparing ourselves to our white counterparts. Because it’s grounded in truth, things are bound to come up.

What’s your character Ama’s role in the group?

Paulina is the queen bee, she’s the head of the gang. Ama is her best friend – she’s the smart and sensible one. She’s trying to find her voice in the group, actually; she’s falling out of line with the queen bee and trying to find her own path.

I majorly relate to that: the difficulties of figuring out who you are. As women, there’s sometimes this fear about not rocking the boat. So saying “no” can feel quite rebellious, but actually that’s the way to discover yourself.

Have you drawn on your own Ghanaian heritage?

Do you know, I’ve never played someone from Ghana – I’ve always played someone from Nigeria or South Africa. It feels like a real privilege. I’ve been asking my mother about her childhood. My parents’ generation don’t usually talk about their upbringing.

So it’s a treat to have this conversation and get this insight into what my mum was doing when she was 16. It’s definitely an intergenerational show. Actually, my character’s called Ama, and my Auntie Ama went to the exact same school! She never told me. Just chatting about the play, all this stuff’s coming out.

The show looks at what our mothers have been through historically so we can understand them better. Jocelyn said that some of the inspiration was from her own mum; there’s a real sense of what our ancestors went through before they came to this country.

Conversely, it sounds like we can all relate to those adolescent friendships?

Absolutely. Looking back, they were formative years. I went to an all-girls Catholic school. It’s made me think about that and my interaction with the opposite sex, how that made an impact on me. I’m also an artist, and I’m interested in psychology: how looking at your childhood makes you understand yourself better.

In terms of impossible beauty standards, do you think we’ve progressed from the play's '80s setting?

It’s the same but different, right? In this show, the conversation is a lot about colourism and the privileges of being a lighter shade. But right now there’s conversation about fatphobia, social media, how our mental health is on the ropes.

The show also talks about capitalism and the pressure to be the ideal when the ideal doesn’t even exist. Really, we should strive for self-acceptance. I think that’s definitely relatable to everyone.

On a more frivolous note, are we getting some amazing '80s fashion in School Girls?

Oh my gosh! Our costume designer is incredible. We’re giving you shoulders, we’re giving you lace, ruffles, all of it. Also just to see young Black women in the '80s, having fun, listening to Bobby Brown: it’s a celebration.

And it's very cool that you’ve got Idris Elba on board as an associate producer.

We’re all calling him “Uncle Idris” in the cast WhatsApp group! He’s half-Ghanaian, so I guess he’s got a soft spot for Ghana. But he’s supporting the production so much. If you’ve got an advocate like Idris Elba, it’s got to be good, right?

I also love your streaming drama, The Power, on Amazon. What was it like filming that?

Absolutely incredible! I mean, talking about women and power – are you kidding? It’s so topical. These urgent stories are what I’m really attracted to.

Like in School Girls, it’s talking about Black women in this complex way: sometimes we can be seen as funny or sassy, but having a mixture of that with something deep and meaningful, it really just humanises Black women’s experiences.

Book School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play tickets on London Theatre.

Book Tickets CTA - LT/NYTG

Photo credit: Heather Agyepong. (Photo by Terna Jogo)

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