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For This Playwright, Africa With Laughter, Not Tears

It was when she was cast as a cockroach — and not even the play’s sole cockroach — that Ms. Bioh realized that if she wanted better roles, she would have to start writing them. (Her contemporaries Katori Hall and Dominique Morisseau followed a similar trajectory.)

Later, at Columbia’s School of the Arts, where she earned an MFA in playwriting and amassed a small mountain of student debt, she found herself encouraged to write anguished kitchen-sink dramas. They weren’t a success. Her thesis play: “Salt on a Slug.”


From left, Abena Mensah-Bonsu, Nike Kadri, Myra Lucretia Taylor, MaameYaa Boafo, Paige Gilbert, center kneeling, and Mirirai Sithole in a rehearsal of “School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play.”

Da Ping Luo

“I thought I was being so deep and it was so stupid,” she said.

Taking a break from playwriting, she knocked on doors and sent résumés and showed up for local casting calls until in 2010 she snagged a part in Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins’s “Neighbors,” playing a character named Topsy, derived from the African-American minstrel tradition.

The play’s director, Niegel Smith, watched her work with the sound designer to encapsulate 450 years of black female representation in one dance. “Jocelyn is go for broke, no stone unturned,” Mr. Smith wrote in an email. “She’s not an artist to be messed with.”

Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins went on to write the part of the slave Minnie in “An Octoroon” specifically for her. Ms. Bioh’s clever, jaunty performance landed every provocative line. (“I know we slaves and evurthang, but you are not your job,” Minnie says as she sweeps.)

“So much of comedy is based on patter, on breath, on lifting the joke out of the text,” Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins said in a recent phone interview. “She’s just a heat-seeking missile in that way. I don’t ever want to let her go.”

In 2014, Ms. Bioh appeared on Broadway in the ensemble of “Curious Incident,” playing a punk girl and an unhelpful transit employee. It was the first time in her life she’d made a decent salary. But she missed playwriting. So she left the show after a year to concentrate on her scripts.

By then Ms. Bioh had realized that her voice was a comic one. “I’ve always moved through the world comedically,” she said. “I don’t know if I’d say I’m happy, you know, Disney Channel kind of happy, every time. But I always find humor in everything.”

This emphasis on comedy set her apart from her peers, but it didn’t always sit well with producers. Ms. Bioh recalls a conversation around her play “Nollywood Dreams,” about a woman cheerfully seduced by Nigeria’s burgeoning film industry. A literary manager liked the play, Ms. Bioh said, but couldn’t understand why all the characters were so happy. Hadn’t she read about Boko Haram?


Jocelyn Bioh, second from right, in a 2017 production of the Suzan-Lori Parks play “In The Blood.”

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Ms. Bioh had. But those weren’t the stories she wanted to tell. She wanted to write about people like her Ghanaian relatives. “They’re funny and wild and silly,” she said. “They’re everyday people who are just trying to pursue extraordinary lives.”

“School Girls” was inspired in part by Ms. Bioh’s mother, who grew up in Ghana and was, as the script notes, “a (proud) mean girl when she was in boarding school.” MCC, an Off Broadway theater with a penchant for vivid, emotionally resonant comedy, like Robert Askins’s “Hand to God” and Penelope Skinner’s “The Village Bike,” learned of the play when Jessica Chase, the artistic producer, attended a reading at the New Black Fest and asked to see more of Ms. Bioh’s work.

The theater decided to produce “School Girls,” Ms. Chase said, because it explored “the impact that beauty standards have on young women in a way that is incredibly funny and urgent.” Once MCC had signed on, Ms. Bioh spent the fall furiously rewriting the play even while appearing in “In the Blood.” (On her Facebook feed, there are pictures of her in costume, typing away.)

Set in 1986 at a Ghanaian boarding school, “School Girls” centers on a group of girls hoping to represent Ghana in the Miss Universe Pageant. The play explores uncomfortable issues — colorism, poverty — and seethes with teenage emotionalism. But the tone is often light, as when a girl who struggles with reading boasts about having just finished her first chapter book, “The Baby-Sitters Club.” “Really powerful stuff,” she says.

As Rebecca Taichman, the play’s director (and a Tony Award winner earlier this year for “Indecent”), noted, the play “smashes up this real comic point of view with profound sadness and anger. But it’s lifted through this comic impulse. Always.”

Ms. Bioh does not appear in “School Girls,” but even offstage, her love for her characters — even the dumb ones, even the mean ones — is palpable. During a recent rehearsal she suddenly made a change in the script, putting an unpopular girl on the soccer team. She seemed to think it might cheer the character up. (In “Happiness and Joe,” her newest play, a character is trying to keep up with the Kardashians, even in the middle of a what might be a genocide.)

As a first-generation American, Ms. Bioh said that she feels “an incredible responsibility in getting people to understand and empathize and sympathize with all of the characters.”

Will her mean-girl mother sympathize? Well, she retired to Ghana, so Ms. Bioh isn’t sure she’ll be in town for the play. But if the play is a success, will it at least help to banish Ms. Bioh’s bad kid reputation? “No,” said Ms. Bioh. “I don’t think she’ll ever forgive me for not being a doctor.”

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