A Closer Look: Jocelyn Bioh
Take "A Closer Look" at the writers of The New Black Fest at The Lark! In this series, the writers involved in this year's festival interview each other about their influences, impulses, inspirations and identities. Read on to hear what Jocelyn Bioh told Erica Micha Holmes about her work!
Eric Micha Holmes: Can you talk a little bit about the first time you heard/read about the true events that inspired School Girls or The African Mean Girls Play? Where were you in your life? Why did this particular piece of history inspire you?
Jocelyn Bioh: My play School Girls is inspired by the Miss Ghana pageant scandal of 2011. I happened upon the story very innocently actually. I saw a commercial on television promoting the Miss Universe pageant, and my curiosity got the best of me, and I googled who was representing Miss Ghana in the pageant. I came across a Ghanaian blog that talked about the controversy over how "American" the winner of Miss Ghana was (she was born and raised in Minnesota and was alleged to have a father from a very obscure region of Ghana.) The blog also included a picture of the winner as well as video of her crowning moment and I was immediately struck by how fair skinned she was and the implications of what it meant that the Miss Ghana pageant recruiters would go through such lengths to find a woman who looked like her. Colorism is such a huge issue within many cultures, specifically in Africa (my parents are from Ghana) and I knew that I wanted address this topic in a play one day, and this story really spoke to me.
EMH: Have you ever watched a beauty pageant LIVE? What surprised you about it?
JB: I have never seen a beauty pageant live but watching both old and new footage of various pageants became a huge part of my research. I have watched everything from large scale pageants (i.e. Miss America, Miss USA, Miss Teen USA, Miss World, Miss Universe) to recorded footage of more obscure pageants (i.e. Miss Africa USA, Miss Subways, Miss Plastic Surgery and even the very strange, Miss Klingon Empire - that really exists!) It is fascinating to see how invested and committed all of the contestants are. It is clear that for most of them, they have been working towards being crowned for a large part of their life. What's surprising is how the media's view has changed. Pageants now are considered pretty unrealistic and silly, but back in the 70's and 80's (my play is set in the 80's) the women who won these competitions became superstars. Winning Miss America or USA was the launching pad for wildly successful careers in entertainment for many women - Vanessa Williams being the greatest example of that.
EMH: When did you start writing your play and what's changed the most so far?
JB: Though I've been conducting research for the play for several years, I started writing it close to two years ago. What's changed most about it I would say is the structure. For the most part, I'm a pretty linear, two act structure kind of writer. However, it became clear after working on early drafts of the play, that I was ahead of the story and knew how it was going to unfold. I decided to experiment with the idea of truncating the play to 100 minutes, have the story unfold in a way that we see the pageant AND how the girls came to be contestants at the same time. Perhaps it will change again or maybe it won't - that's the beauty of play development!