Monday, September 17, 2018

Where to Be Merry: School Girls (Or, the African Mean Girls Play) @ The Kirk Douglas Theatre, Culver City

Jocelyn Bioh’s "School Girls (Or, the African Mean Girls Play)" has taken over the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City until the end of September 2018. Much like the name suggests, it's a comedic-drama that brings to life the tale of six young ladies as they tackle typical teen ordeals and other tough issues, set in 1986 in the midst of the upcoming Miss Universe pageant.

All of the action takes place in the sparsely decorated, green-and-yellow cafeteria at the Aburi Girls Boarding School, located in the Aburi Mountains of central Ghana (fun fact: this school really exists, and Bioh’s mother actually went here!)

We’re immediately introduced to the core group of friends, all pictured below — the pensive Nana (Abena Mensah-Bonsu), cousins Mercy (Mirirai Sithole) and Ama (Latoya Edwards), and the quieter but very bright Gifty (Paige Gilbert), all led by their fierce and fearless leader Paulina Sarpong (MaameYaa Boafo, who's standing in the photo below).

When newcomer Ericka Boafo (Joanna A. Jones, sitting down in the photo below) relocates to the school from the States, she unintentionally shakes the fragile hierarchy of the girls’ friendships. Tensions increase even more when Ericka decides to participate in the race to find Miss Ghana, who would eventually compete in the Miss Universe pageant. While the entire group of friends had planned to enter, everyone had assumed Paulina would win. But Ericka’s kind and generous disposition, fascinating dresses, secret talents — and fairer complexion and longer hair — gravely threaten Paulina’s assumed reign. 

Under the watchful eye of Headmistress Francis (Myra Lucretia Taylor, below in the green skirt) and a highly anticipated visit from Miss Ghana 1966 Eloise Amponsah (Zenzi Williams, below in the red dress), the girls find themselves learning more about themselves and one another than they ever could have imagined. 

Quick-witted dialogue and tongue-and-cheek banter make the show incredibly entertaining. The girls' lively excitement and innocent naïveté transport the audience back to those good ole high school days — that awkward era when being accepted meant so much, and cattiness and shifting loyalties were the norm. We see Paulina struggle to defend her sovereignty as group leader from Ericka, and Nana proves just how far she’s willing to go to be accepted. Plus, a good juicy high school drama wouldn’t be complete without betrayals, puppy love and figuring out how to mold to — or break — societal beauty standards. And since it’s ’86, there’s nothing like a dose of Bobby Brown and his energetic hits to round out the story, too.

In some sense, it’s comical to see how much Western culture dazzles and fascinates the girls. Aside from swooning over Bobby Brown, all of them want to wear dresses shipped from the States and Paulina proudly claims knows someone who works at White Castle and who can get her Calvin Kleen dresses from NYC’s Chinatown. Plus, their riveting performance of Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love of All during the Miss Ghana pageant tryouts is another testament to their love for the music, too. It’s interesting to see how our U.S. culture can be revered and even sometimes misconstrued when we see it through the lens of a completely different perspective.

Yet even with its lighthearted sentiment throughout, the production still broaches some serious, deeply rooted topics. It explores colorism, or the system where fairer skin is more valued than darker skin. We feel the tension initially emerge when Ericka, who is a caramel tone (she’s half-white and half-Ghanaian) first enters the boarding school, with the chocolate-hued girls curiously asking about her lighter skin. Colorism rears its ugly head again in the form of lightening cream and the controversial debate on what the next Miss Ghana’s skin color should be. Their tender age and the bonds of sisterhood unfortunately don’t shield them from having to deal with how beauty is unfairly represented, both on local and global scales. 

Diving even a bit deeper, I’d say "School Girls" even tackles the concept of power, both perceived and real. Not only do we see the power struggle between Paulina and Ericka (both pictured below) for the coveted title of group leader, but we watch them confess to each other how much more of an advantage they think the other has. Plus, we watch as both Headmistress Francis and Eloise reveal through their actions just how much power they have — or don’t have. I found myself deeply disappointed in how the only two adults in the entire story failed to use their influence to create positive change.

At times "School Girls" tinges on the melodramatic side, but all in all, it’s a highly energetic, fast-paced production that truly feels like it passes way too quickly. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself laughing so hard that tears stream down your face, getting super upset at the unjust situations the girls have to face, and at other moments, anxiously twitching as you’re transported back to those trying teen years.

And finally, what makes "School Girls" even more intriguing IMHO is that it’s loosely based on the 2011 Miss Ghana ordeal. In this real life situation, the winner, who was born and raised in Minnesota and was biracial, had claimed she was from Ghana, but no one could confirm her true identity. Here’s what Bioh mentioned in her script notes:

“In 2011, the Miss Ghana Pageant officials, in an attempt to become the first West African country to have a viable and perhaps winning contestant in the Miss Universe pageant, named Yayra Erica Nego (an American born and Minnesota raised bi-racial woman) the winner of the Miss Ghana pageant. Officials claimed that her father was from the Volta region of Ghana (a region that is considered extremely obscure and rarely have people ever emigrated from there) but never confirmed his name or whereabouts before procuring her as a contestant for the Miss Ghana pageant. She beat out two of Ghana's most famous models at the time. Erica went on to the Miss Universe pageant that year where she did not place. I thought that story was pretty damn interesting and wanted to explore how the Western idea of colorism infiltrated into African society. Also, my mom was a (proud) mean girl when she was a student at Aburi Girls boarding school. So, there's that.”

Should you decide to see "School Girls," I recommend staying for the post-show audience talks. Curated by Kirk Douglas Theatre team members, guests are prompted to share their thoughts about the show and it’s interesting to hear everyone’s different takeaways.

This production featuring an all-female cast is only going on for a few short weeks more, so don’t wait long to check it out.

See you at the next show!

For more information:

All photo credits: Craig Schwartz

Monday, September 10, 2018

Where to Eat & Drink: Labor Day Weekend @ Los Angeles Times’ The Taste Festival

This past Labor Day weekend for the very first time I went to Los Angeles Times’ The Taste Festival.

Held at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood, this food festival is like the granddaddy of all food festivals. Spanning not one but three consecutive nights, it’s massive, it’s delicious and it’s got so much to see, explore and taste.

Each night from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m., local restaurants and beverage brands congregate within their very own tented stations on the Paramount lot to hand out unlimited bite-sized samples of select dishes and drinks. There’s also cooking demos and talks at various stages throughout the weekend and tons of other interesting things to ogle at. And, an incredible DJ keeps an upbeat mix of old school R&B, worldly tunes and other jams spinning the whole time.

Personally, what I loved the most about The Taste was seeing so many of my favorite establishments — many which have been featured on this very #WilsonsGuide blog — all in one location. So many places ranging from Santa Monica to downtown L.A. and everything in between come out. Plus, it was such a treat to run into world-renowned chefs, like Wolf chef / television personality Marcel Vigneron, pictured below.

Even though I went each night, I unfortunately couldn’t stop by every single station, but, I did my very best to make the rounds and have now compiled highlights from The Taste.

Take a look below!


I came around 9 p.m. — halfway into the festival — which was a rookie’s mistake. My late arrival meant I had to scramble to devour as much as possible and even then, I couldn’t get to many stations. I decided to mostly focus on food, no libations. Here’s what piqued my interest the most:

The Vietnamese Nong La Cafe (with locations in mid-city and in the Sawtelle district) had a baaaad pork belly rice bowl, with pork belly that had been smoked for six hours. The meat was so tender, juicy and flavorful.

The Southeast Asian Kitchen and Bar bone kettle in Pasadena came out with oxtail dumplings with maitake mushrooms doused in a buttery san bai su sauce. The pasta was such quality and the sauce was so rich. Loved this!

Others I enjoyed checking out included two other #WilsonsGuide picks, Casa Vega, which dished out the same mini sweet corn tamale as it had at the Flavor of LA festival and Crustacean Beverly Hills, which featured two of Jonathan Gold’s favorites.


I felt much more prepared to tackle the festival on Saturday. I arrived earlier and with a very big appetite. Yet what I didn’t know was that Friday’s participating restaurants weren’t necessarily there on Saturday, too. The bad news was now I couldn’t visit some places I had mentally made a note to hit up, but the good news was that there were still a whole of incredible new stations to see.

Tao Los Angeles had tasty “Duroc Pork Bao Buns” — spongy steamed bread rolls that were lightly toasted on the outside and stuffed with piping hot pork. Very filling!

Winston Pies, the L.A. Bakery with North Carolina roots, came out with an incredible blueberry pie. Tiny blueberries packed the entire pie, which had a perfectly flaky crust and just the right touch of sweetness.

Trois Mec, the mid-city fine dining French restaurant that offers a rotating five-course menu, whipped up Smoked Macédoine. That’s basically a medley of carrots, broccoli, tomatoes and other veggies, all tossed in a very light mayonnaise.

Even more #WilsonsGuide faves made an appearance, including Citizen Mustard, with Chef Megan Marlow in the tent prepping the Wild Mushroom Croquettes, and Pearl’s Texas BBQ, which had the longest lines ever and sold out early, both Friday and Saturday nights.


By the time the last day rolled around, I was a bonafide pro at this food festival game. I now knew the lay of the land, and I could maximize my time chowing down and minimize my time waiting in lines. Specifically on Sunday, I mostly got my fill of ethnic cuisines, including Mexican, Ethiopian, Southern and soul food.

Dulan’s, another restaurant that’s previously made it on the #WilsonsGuide blog, served up heaping portions of mac-n-cheese, collard greens and classic Southern cornbread that was all kinds of sweet and buttery goodness.

The pop-up eatery Hotville Chicken came through with its legendary Nashville hot chicken bites, on white bread and topped with a sliced pickle.

Lalibela Ethiopian Restaurant, located in Little Ethiopia, provided a sampler plate of popular dishes like Gomen (collard greens with spices), the vegan Kik Aletcha (yellow split peas), vegan Miser Wot (split lentils) and Doro Wot (stew chicken).

DTLA’s Chiguacle Sabor Ancestral de Mexico had mini Ovo Verde Enchiladas — a crispy tortilla stuffed with creamy guac.

The Drinks

Of course, a culinary festival wouldn’t be complete without drinks, and there were quite a few on deck throughout the weekend. From household names to budding start-ups, including wines, spirits, coffee and other non-alcoholic beverages, there seemed to something for every one.

The big names — including Don Julio and Bulleit — had massive installations that drew in crowds by the numbers.

Here are the ones, big and small, that caught my attention the most:

Don Julio gave out craft cocktails on tap, all from a vintage silver Airstream. They also had an outdoor lounge area that had a chic Southwestern décor, and an old-school truck that guests could sit in and snap a photo (and please, never drink and drive!).

I don’t drink beer, but that didn’t stop me from appreciating Stella Artois’s ingenuity and practicality; they disseminated branded chalice glasses and these convenient plastic plates that could hold both the glass and multiple tastings.

The French winery Domaine Royal de Jarras had a very light and fruity rosé available, the 2017 Pink Flamengo. Now this was wine I could’ve drank all summer long.

The Best of the Best

Here's what I found to be the best of The Taste — the places that were by far the best of the whole entire weekend.

Best dessert – Eataly was the biggest winner in my books for its version of an ice cream sandwich. It smooshed the most amazing gelato, available in Sweet Cream or Fior di Latte, in between two bombolinis, or Italian donuts that were warm, lightly fried and fluffy and crunchy. The juxtaposition between cold and hot, creamy and crunchy, and the flavors themselves — it was so delicious, and I wasn’t alone in thinking this either. I saw quite a few guests walking around with three or four in hand.

Best food – Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken (also formerly on the #WilsonsGuide blog) passed out golden fried wings and chicken breasts all weekend long. And the best part: they didn’t run out, even as the festival was closing each night. All weekend long, I heard people gush over Gus’s and of course, I made sure to stop by each and every night.

Best station – Maker’s Mark, hands down, had the best “station,” which was really a massive trailer decorated to feel like you were in a distillery. Not only did the team distribute a delicious whiskey punch, but it had an interactive VR game to play and calligrapher Erica Tighe from Be a Heart Studio provided customized tote bags. Plus, there was a photo booth and a plug-the-barrel game.

More highlights

If you’ve made it this far and are reading, you get a gold star. Because as if that wasn’t enough, there was still so much more!

L.A. Times editors and chefs participated in a dozen or so talks and cooking demos throughout the weekend, covering everything from 101 reasons to drink wine and eating breakfast all day. I saw Charles Olalia of Rice Bar/Ma’am Sir give the download on Filipino cuisine, and I’m so glad I stayed until the end because he passed out some delicious made-on-the-spot tortillas stuffed with one of his signature chicken and rice dishes.

Many stations paid homage to the late Jonathan Gold by featuring some of his favorite fare. Another tribute was a gigantic painting of Gold’s silhouette, which took all three nights to complete. Below, you can see the progress made each evening.

All in all, I had a great time as this was truly a foodie’s dream come true. I will definitely be attending next year’s festival, too!

Did you go to The Taste as well? If so, don’t forget to drop your favorites from the festival in the comments section below!

For more info: