Interview with Playwright Jocelyn Bioh

During the rehearsal process for School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play, Dramaturg Gabrielle Hoyt had the chance to speak with School Girls  Playwright Jocelyn Bioh about our regional premiere and the inspiration behind the comedy. The production, Directed by Nicole A. Watson, begins September 18, 2019. Additional content from this interview can be found in the production program. 

Do you think this play has anything specific to say to the DMV area?
I’m extremely familiar with the massive West African community in the DMV area. I’ve done a lot of research on it and know there’s a big community there, so I’m very excited to send the tangential-not-super-related-but-we-are-because-we’re-African cousins and aunties and uncles who live in the area, who have much closer access to Round House than they would coming up to New York or flying across the country to LA. That’s exciting to me; when we did the original production, we brought in massive amounts of Black and Brown people to see the show, and then by way of that we brought in a lot of the African community as well.
There’s been a real uptick in plays with all-female-identifying or non-binary casts in recent years—like Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves, Clare Barron’s Dance Nation, and Lily Padilla’s How to Defend Yourself…and all of them take place in high school or college.
All of the writers of the plays you mentioned were generally within the same six-year age window. For me, there’s some sort of very clear understanding or come-to-Jesus moment I had about what exactly my high school experience was. Call that being mature or whatever, but I felt like I could very accurately depict and reflect what it was that I could not even verbalize or articulate in any way previously, but I could at this particular time.  When people come to see these plays, they come to see the tropes we’re playing with. There’s something interesting about going back and examining what that was, and challenging audiences to examine who they are now and how they’re functioning in the world at present. Also, all these plays emerged and surfaced out of the Trump era, in a time where we very clearly saw a woman’s voice be completely stifled, and I think there’s a rebellious nature to it. School Girls isn’t overtly political in any way, but there’s something to be said to wanting these strong female characters to rise from the ashes and tell our stories in the most honest way possible.
Your plays are a joy for actors to rehearse and perform. Does this tie in to your own performance background?
I was an actor who discovered that I had a love for writing. I took a playwriting course in college to compensate for a credit I wasn’t receiving because I wasn’t getting cast in plays, because my school’s program cast to “type,” so that limited the plays I could be cast in or even auditioned for. So I fell into writing. I initially thought, “I’m going to do the one-woman show thing, like Charlayne Woodard or Sarah Jones or Anna Deavere Smith.” But ultimately I love creating stories not just for parts I can play, but for anyone and everyone who looks like me. I love the idea of a large ensemble of Black women, and a play set in an African country, where we’re still dealing with a serious topic but all these women are flexing really fun comedic muscles. There’s a lot of care put into every single character, especially in School Girls. I’ve thought of every single word that someone says or doesn’t say in the play. Someone like Nana can have redemption, while someone like Paulina can be a villain, but we still experience empathy and sympathy for her. That was very important to me, and those are things we don’t normally get, especially with plays featuring Black women. I’m so glad it creates this sense of family. That’s exactly what it was every time we did it at MCC, and it’s exciting to see that carry into every production I’ve seen and heard of.
The play feels so tightly woven, which is a testament to its structure. Did you think about that a lot as you were writing?
The play came together completely organically. The draft of the play that now exists, the version that is being performed, is the 27th draft of the play. I started with big huge crazy swathes of ideas and then slowly and slowly realized, “this needs to stay, this needs to go, this needs to stay ,this needs to go,” and it started to form into what is now the play. It was a completely organic experience, and Rebecca Taichman, my first director, is an incredible dramaturg as well. She asked the right questions and gave me the right provocations that kept leading me towards the thing. I knew what I wanted to write and the characters were always the same and the colorism was always there, but how the story leads and gets to that climactic place was something I found with each draft. The whole process was around 18 months, so it was a long process, but a really great one. Sometimes all you need is a nugget, a small little something, and then you figure out how that nugget or seed can grow into this bigger thing. Every writer should allow themselves to go to this vulnerable place of, “I may need to throw everything but one page away, but I still know that I got something there.” That was a very exciting process for everyone involved, especially the theatre: “What is going on? She’s rewriting the play twice in one week, I don’t understand!” I write very fast as well, so I wasn’t intimidated by needing to throw everything away and start over. I knew I could come up with something quickly again.
I know your mom’s time in school was a big inspiration for School Girls; what does she think of it?
The thing is with both my parents is, they have no understanding of what I do. That’s the general consensus with a lot of immigrant parents—doctors and lawyers and engineers. She only just recently saw the show, and she was just like, “It’s good!” it was a very simple review, there was no real in-depth analysis. It was the simplest review ever. Take that, New York Times!
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