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Jocelyn Bioh: A Girl Can Stream...

The dramatist reflects on seeing her play School Girls onscreen rather than onstage.

Jocelyn Bioh
(© Brad Ogbonna)

It was March 27 — the night before my birthday. I sat down, nestled in my favorite corner of my couch with a glass of Prosecco, and searched the Broadway HD app of my Roku TV. Even tediously typing in "S-c-h-o-o-l G-i-r-l-s" felt surreal. I never imagined that this was the way I was going to experience the Bay Area premiere of my beloved play.

A few weeks prior, I had excitedly finalized my travel plans for San Francisco – it was going to be a busy month for me, as a production of my play was also opening at the Goodman Theatre just 10 days before Berkeley Rep. I was also in rehearsals for the world premiere of my new play Nollywood Dreams at MCC Theater (now postponed.) It was an incredibly exciting time that all came to a distressingly abrupt halt on March 12 as our extremely vulnerable theater community started to shut everything down.

It seemed that time was moving at warp speed and at a snail's pace. Almost immediately, I was inundated with phone calls, emails, and meetings about postponement dates and approvals and rights and protected streaming platforms. But in the midst of the chaos, all I could think about were the casts and crews of these productions; people who had worked tirelessly for weeks to bring this play to life. I couldn't help thinking how poignant one of the last lines of the play might feel to them: "All of that, for nothing." Sure, it would exist online in some way, but those of us who make theater know that there is nothing like a live performance. Feeding off the audience. Having a live connection with human beings. That for these 75 minutes, we have all silently agreed to sit in a room and go on a journey – together.

Lanise Antoine Shelley (Eloise Amponsah), Kyrie Courter (Ericka Boafo), Katherine Lee Bourné (Ama), Ashley Crowe (Nana), Adia Alli (Gifty), and Tiffany Renee Johnson (Mercy) in School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play by Jocelyn Bioh, directed by Lili-Anne Brown at the Goodman Theatre.
(© Liz Lauren)

But the realities of Covid-19 being what they were, I was now going to experience my play from the comfort of my living room. Both the Berkeley Rep and the Goodman productions were available to be streamed and I watched both within days of each other. I wasn't sure what it would be like to watch the show this way. I had made it a point to connect with both productions; I had an in-depth conversation with the Berkeley Rep company when they were in rehearsals, and I had spent a week in the rehearsal room with the Goodman company – both casts are full of incredible talents, so seeing their faces on the screen felt oddly personal.

As I watched the show, a strange combination of melancholy and joy flooded through me. I was so thankful that the productions had been captured and that audiences could experience the play and see all of the beautiful work that had been poured into it. So much love, light, laughter, and #BlackGirlMagic radiated through the screen. But it was bittersweet that all of this would not be experienced by audiences in person – especially at a time when we all could really use it.

School Girls changed my life. In a lot of ways, the play is now much bigger than me and anything I could have ever dreamed for it. It gives me great solace to know that perhaps because of it being streamed, someone, somewhere will get to experience the play and hopefully connect with the story on some level. That kind of reach is powerful. Making theater is magical. And it is nice to know that we can still touch hearts; be it in person or with the click of a link.

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