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Howard Sherman: New York is warming to shows in which young women dominate the stage

Nike Kadri, Nabiyah Be, Paige Gilbert and Mirirai Sithole in School Girls, or the African Mean Girls Play at the Lucille Lortel Theater. Photo: Joan Marcus
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Considering the number of all-male plays already in the theatrical canon, you might think we’d see more productions with all-female casts. This is hardly the reality, and even rarer are such productions for which the playwright and director are also women.

But for the past month in New York, two plays that meet these criteria have run simultaneously on major Off-Broadway stages. Not only that: even more unusually, most of the characters are teenagers.

I’m hard-pressed to think of other shows I’ve seen that focus on teenage girls. Of course, Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour sprang to mind, but both the play and the novel on which it is based were written by men. That doesn’t diminish its achievements, but does qualify as an important distinction for my purposes.

The first of the two New York shows is The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe, now in its third Manhattan run in 15 months. It has a cast of 10, with only one adult character, who appears in the final minutes of the play.

School Girls, Or the African Mean Girls Play, by Jocelyn Bioh, is the second. It finishes its premiere run next weekend and has a cast of eight, with only two adult characters.

Both stories are populated by high-school students: the former focuses on a football team, the latter is sbout the opportunity for the school to send a contestant to the Miss Ghana pageant.

While I saw many young people in the audience at School Girls, neither show seems crafted exclusively for a young audience. They have various youth culture signifiers (the African characters in School Girls primarily reference American pop icons), but there’s nothing that average audience members in their 40s – or even their 70 – wouldn’t understand, unless texting and Bobby Brown are completely unknown to them.

Neither show is crafted to be ‘family-friendly’. The young women at times speak profanely, graphically and cuttingly to and about one another.

As a result, only the most broad-minded of high schools is likely to stage productions of these shows in coming years, even though their student bodies might yearn to embody these young women who are almost certainly much like themselves or their classmates. That’s unfortunate as in both plays the shifting patterns of teen friendships and loyalties are sensitively, knowingly delineated.

There’s yet another distinction that The Wolves and School Girls share, namely that they are both the first plays by their authors to be produced. Bioh has been working as an actress; DeLappe has been focused on playwriting and working on a graduate degree. To have first plays premiere in New York is an achievement in itself.

I wish it were not surprising to find these two productions running right now – that plays by young women about younger women were a natural and commonplace thing on our stages.

Hollywood has been catering to teenage tastes for years, even if in many cases they do little more than pander. Theatre needs stories about young people if it is to be a place that draws young people to attend.

Those plays must represent diversity of gender, race and ethnicity – and of class and disability as well. They needn’t be told exclusively by adult characters, as long as the experiences centre on the lives of the so-called average theatregoer.

That both The Wolves and School Girls have enjoyed sold-out runs is a testament to the value of depicting the lives of young women on stage. While two plays do not necessarily signal a trend, they do set an example.

Sustaining theatre for subsequent generations must not only ask younger audiences to take an interest in the lives of adults. Instead, established theatregoing audiences should be asked to appreciate the lives of the young, which they will find familiar from their past and which could open up theatre doors and stages for the future.

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