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Atlanta artist Brandon Sadler draws inspiration from American graffiti and Asian art forms

Brandon Sadler Atlanta artist
Brandon Sadler

Photograph by Marie Thomas

Like many kids in the ’90s, Atlanta native Brandon Sadler grew up watching Japanese anime cartoons such as Dragon Ball Z and Mobile Suit Gundam Wing. He’d often sketch the figures he saw on TV and in comic books—drawn by the depth of manga storylines as well as the angular features, emotive eyes, and saturated colors of its characters.

As a teen, he started to scale his work by exploring graffiti. This led him to pursue a degree in illustration and painting from Savannah College of Art & Design, Atlanta. He had expected to graduate and become a professional illustrator, but with the 2008 recession lingering, he applied to teach in South Korea. During the year he was there, Sadler says that he developed his style and expanded his artistic palette.

Brandon Sadler Atlanta artist
Sadler in his studio with Sumi, who is named after a type of Japanese ink

Photograph by Marie Thomas

“Calligraphy is more prevalent in Korea than it is here, so when I started going to museums there, I was a sponge,” Sadler said. “Now, I take the English alphabet and fashion it to look like Chinese, Japanese, and Korean characters. The trip allowed me to evolve my skillset.”

Cross-pollination of American graffiti and Asian art forms is his signature, which caught the eye of Hannah Beachler, who hired him to paint the walls in Shuri’s (T’Challa’s sister) laboratory for Black Panther—one of the sets that helped Beachler become the first African American to be nominated for, and then the first to win, an Oscar for production design. He also painted a mural portrait of the film’s costume designer, Ruth Carter, at the Georgia Freight Depot for a high-profile launch of her athleisure line for H&M.

Brandon Sadler Atlanta artist
Inner Space mural in West End

Photograph by Marie Thomas

“My dad is white, and my mom is Black, and growing up, it was like, you’re not Black enough for Blacks and you’re definitely not white enough for whites, so you exist in this gray area,” Sadler said. That experience helped him appreciate “cultural connectivity” and see parallels between different backgrounds and viewpoints.

Nowadays, in addition to working for commercial clients, like Google and Disney, and displaying public art on the BeltLine or local underpasses, Sadler is experimenting with a comic book and three-dimensional forms, including pieces used in daily tea practice, such as tables, boxes, altars, and meditation benches.

During this interview, he sat in his Moreland Avenue studio sharpening knives to create wooden cutouts of Asian-influenced alphabet characters. His dog, Sumi, who is named after the type of Japanese ink he favors, roams throughout the space, lying underneath large canvases of vibrant koi fish and bonsai trees.

“Art has already taken me where I want to go. I only want the work that I’m making to have an even more significant impact,” Sadler said.

This article appears in our Fall 2020 issue of Atlanta Magazine’s HOME.

5 indie bookstores to support during Women’s History Month (and all year long)

5 indie bookstores Atlanta
Bunnie Hilliard, Brave + Kind Books

Photograph by Martha Williams

Georgia’s literary history is rich with remarkable women writers like Anne Rivers Siddons, Pearl Cleage, Flannery O’Connor, Tayari Jones, and Alice Walker. It’s no surprise that legacy carries into the metro’s brick-and-mortar bookshops.

1. The 2011 closure of Borders, one of Atlanta’s largest sellers of Black literature, left readers wanting. Five years later, Monique S. Hall started Book Boutique as a pop-up at the Essence Music Festival to help fill that space. Now with an Atlantic Station location, the boutique has kept its festival vibe and added apparel and a cafe. Come for your next great read, stay for Taco Tuesday, Seafood Friday, weekend brunch, or a twice-a-month spoken-word poetry series. Expect new locations in Alpharetta, Augusta, and Charlotte, North Carolina, this year.

2. Charis Books and More, founded in 1974, is the Southeast’s oldest feminist bookstore. For decades, Charis—which moved to Decatur two years ago in partnership with Agnes Scott College—has held meet-and-greets with celebrated authors from around the world. Go online to catch weekly programs from the store’s sister nonprofit, Charis Circle, like its Black Feminist Book Group or Race-Conscious Parenting Collective. A discussion of the newly published We Too: Essays on Sex Work and Survival is planned for this month.

3. The desire to create a space where diversity and inclusivity are priority is what drove Bunnie Hilliard to open Brave + Kind Bookshop in Oakhurst three years ago. An avid reader and mother of two, she wanted more books that “reflect the world we live in and the one we want to create.” After the Black Lives Matter demonstrations last summer, she saw an uptick in online orders from people across the country who hope to create more diverse libraries, with books that “celebrate Black and brown joy, adventure, love, and magic.” Don’t miss Brave + Kind’s slate of virtual events for Independent Bookstore Day on April 24.

4. FoxTale Book Shoppe, nestled near the railroad tracks in downtown Woodstock, emphasizes Southern and emerging authors. Check its Facebook page for virtual author Q&As and readings, including upcoming events with Lauren Willig, Deanna Raybourn, Jillian Cantor, and Karen White.

5. When Kimberly and Omar Finley’s oldest child was in kindergarten, he was assigned to write a poem based on the Biblical creation story. The Finleys searched for Christian children’s books to get inspiration, but they couldn’t find any that featured Black people. So, the parents decided to write one themselves. A World of Our Own: The Beginning sold 500 copies in 90 days. That’s how their tiny shop in Decatur, the Listening Tree Bookstore, was born. Today, in addition to carrying books for kids of all ages, they host a young entrepreneurs program, through which the Finleys teach kids how to write business plans and register for LLCs. Listening Tree also offers a subscription service that delivers books and other goodies to kids’ doors each month.

This article appears in our March 2021 issue.

For Suwanee artist Anita Darling, art is a devotion

Anita DarlingEvery morning, Anita Darling walks barefoot to her backyard greenhouse in Suwanee. She stands still, feeling the dew under her feet, sips her coffee, and prays—in order to align herself with God and nature before starting to draw. Looking at her intricate ink-and-charcoal images of flowers and seashells, her devotion is clear. It’s something she’s felt since she was as a child.

Growing up, Darling and her family moved around a lot, relocating nearly a dozen times. For her, the one constant was the beauty of nature. She was always artistically inclined but didn’t consider the field as a career until she was in her 30s. “I put being an artist on such a pedestal,” says Darling.

Anita Darling
”Foggy Morning” is a canna lily in blue ink.

Courtesy of Anita Darling

Instead, she attended interior design school, enlisted in the Air Force, and worked as a makeup artist. However, stumbling upon some old photos she’d taken of flowers as a teenager inspired her to take out some charcoal and draw the hibiscus and poppies in her backyard. That spark gave her focus—well, sort of.

In addition to creating art, she is a competitive bodybuilder, caters wine-and-chocolate events, and grows herbs. Having just turned 40, she has no intentions of getting old and boring—a sentiment partly inspired by admiration for her 97-year-old Japanese grandmother. “I want to be old and interesting as heck,” she says.

Anita Darling
Darling mixes her own inks.

Photograph by Marie Thomas

Nowadays, though, creating artwork is her primary vocation. She has discovered, “Art is the opposite of fear.” Darling mixes her own inks to get the most vibrant colors possible. She regularly shows her work at the Quinlan Visual Arts Center in Gainesville and Tannery Row Artist Colony, where her studio is located. Darling’s interior design connections have led to commissions by boutique hotels and private homeowners around the country.

“I genuinely adore what I do,” says Darling. “I feel like art [is an engine] to uplift and grow people. Bigger than that, people need to stop going to TJ Maxx to find their artwork. Go find your personality, and put that up there on your walls.”

This article appears in our Winter 2020 issue of Atlanta Magazine’s HOME.

Five ways the Alliance Theatre’s drive-in Christmas Carol uplifts the spirit

Atlanta covid-safer holiday activities drive-inFor almost 30 years, the Alliance Theatre has ushered in the holiday spirit with a production of A Christmas Carol. Based on Charles Dickens’ 19th century classic, the play takes the curmudgeonly Ebenezer Scrooge through the Christmases of his past, present, and future in order to teach him an important lesson about compassion and charity.

In a year addled with unprecedented challenges—namely, the Covid-19 pandemic—artistic director Susan Booth says that Dickens’ story stands the test of time and that the company was determined to find a way to lift people’s spirits this holiday season.

Alliance Theatre A Christmas Carol The Live Radio Play
Jeanette Illidge performs during A Christmas Carol: The Live Radio Play

Photograph by Greg Mooney

Alliance Theatre A Christmas Carol The Live Radio PlayAnd, for many theaters, their annual holiday show funds the rest of the year. At the Alliance, A Christmas Carol accounts for about a third of annual ticket revenue, so in a year where artists and arts organizations have received little-to-no financial relief, the show must go on.

Just as Scrooge revisits his past to move forward, the Alliance chose to take the relic of the drive-in movie theater and adapt it for an outdoor stage show. A Christmas Carol: The Live Radio Play runs through December 24 in a lot next to Georgia State University’s Center Parc Credit Union Stadium (formerly Turner Field). Here are a few ways they’ve gone the extra mile to make the experience special.Alliance Theatre A Christmas Carol The Live Radio Play

  1. Three actors—dozens of voices. Typically, A Christmas Carol has one of the largest casts of the Alliance Theatre season, but for this production, they’ve proven that big things can come in small packages. Atlanta-based actors Jeremy Aggers, Jeanette Illidge and Brad Raymond do a standout job of giving each and every character a distinct voice—something they’ve each learned from their work as audiobook narrators. Director Leora Morris says that the choice to cast three actors to do all of the characters’ voices allows the audience to “delight in the actors’ virtuosity.” She added that at one moment, Aggers plays six different people for six lines in a row.
  2. Do you hear what I hear? The other “character” in the play, so to speak, is the sound design. Percussion artist Stuart Gerber and sound designer Ben Coleman make a dynamic duo for the auditory experience of A Christmas Carol. It is, in effect, a staged reading of an audio play, and they make sure that the audience gets an earful. Gusts of wind, hoofs trotting on cobblestone streets, doors creaking, sleigh bells ringing—it’s all there. Be sure to tune your car radio to 90.5 FM early to hear the Christmas music before the play.
  3. Theater goes best with food, and the set up for A Christmas Carol is perfect to share a meal with the family. Every space to the right of each car is open for sitting outside (with masks on) and watching the show. Many people have brought tables and folding chairs and order from nearby restaurants or made it a potluck during the performances. The Summerhill neighborhood has become a foodie destination in the last couple of years with the additions of Little Bear, Talat Market, Big Softie ice cream, Hero Doughnuts & Buns, Junior’s Pizza, and Wood’s Chapel Barbecue, plus neighborhood staples such as Bullpen Ribhouse, so you can’t go wrong.
  4. The audience is in on the show. When you drive into the parking lot, the greeters hand you a red envelope full of some cute surprises to keep the family engaged throughout the show. There are also moments during the performance where the audience is prompted to flash their lights, honk their horns, and sing along with the music.
  5. Essential workers aren’t forgotten. During each performance, the Alliance has invited a local essential worker to the show and recognizes them during the performance. On the night I attended, they recognized an Atlanta Public Schools cafeteria manager and her family. That heartwarming moment embodies the spirit of Dickens’ novel-turned-play in the best ways.

Atlanta artist Lillian Blades’s three-dimensional “quilts” tell the story of her life

Lillian Blades
Artist Lillian Blades at September Gray Fine Art Gallery

Photograph by Ron Witherspoon

Lillian Blades’s colorful creations have a way of making you feel like you’re under the sea, rolling in the grass, and viewing a desert sunset all at once. Her abstract, multicanvas, multimedia creations are the focal point of any room they’re in, awash with bright colors and an assortment of picture frames, jewelry, mirrors, and other objects she finds at thrift stores. For the Bahamian artist and SCAD Savannah graduate, who has called Atlanta home since arriving to attend graduate school at Georgia State in 1996, art is a way of connecting to her late parents.

She says she uses PVC pipes in her work as an ode to her father, who was a plumber, and hundreds of colorful buttons, which she calls the “cells” of her work, as an homage to her seamstress mother.

Growing up in the Bahamas, Blades, who was raised by her aunt, found an affinity for art because it was an easy conversation starter for her as a shy child. Her works are also deeply inspired by African, Caribbean, and Black American quilting traditions. Indeed, her works are much like three-dimensional quilts drenched in blue, pink, yellow, green, and red paints that evoke the Bahamian islands.

“I find the asymmetry and that ‘make-do’ quality of quilting very intriguing,” Blades said. “My grammy always said ‘make do, make it work,’ and it always turns out beautifully.”

Lillian Blades
Blades at work in her Westview studio on an untitled piece commissioned by Publix GreenWise Market

Photograph by Marie Thomas

Blades’s works have been displayed in galleries in the Bahamas, Germany, Trinidad, and the U.S. She has also designed installations for Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, East Atlanta Library, and the Publix GreenWise Market in Marietta. Her next solo exhibition will be at Clark Atlanta University.

“Whether it’s fabric, images from magazines, or textures from different materials that I don’t want to discard the memories of . . . I pull everything together in a way that makes sense based on the elements and principles of design.”

This article appears in our Summer 2020 issue of Atlanta Magazine’s HOME.

Loupe aims to be the Spotify of visual art

Loupe art
Toni Erm, WANT TO BE ONE OF MANY?, painting.

Artwork courtesy of Loupe

Rachel White discovered Loupe—an art streaming service—at a party in 2015. She was working toward a marketing degree at the University of Georgia and liked the app so much that she applied for an internship with the Atlanta-based company. Today, as chief experience officer, she sees it as a platform that allows beauty for beauty’s sake.

Loupe features work from more than 200 living artists. Users can stream channels curated by theme, color, or artist, and, if they come across something they like, can order original works and prints with just a click.

“There are all of these screens out there and ads coming at you, but they don’t necessarily enhance ambience or decor in a space,” says White. “We have a solution that allows art to be in conversation with technology.”

Loupe art
Tal Paz-Fridman, Branches and Leaves II, print.

Artwork courtesy of Loupe

Loupe art
Streetwise LA, Life 14, 2015, print.

Artwork courtesy of Loupe

Loupe art
Clay Stapleford, The Mothman Prophecies, print.

Artwork courtesy of Loupe

Loupe art
Alex Morris, Gold Recoil, mixed media.

Artwork courtesy of Loupe

CEO and founder Dot Bustelo, who formerly worked at Apple, launched Loupe to complement the experience of music streaming. Though streaming has become ubiquitous for performing arts, it largely has been overlooked as a way to discover visual art.

“I want Loupe Art to be for visual art what Spotify is to music,” says Bustelo. “Instead of trying to scramble for followers who will view their work on a cell phone, [artists] can have their art displayed on a 65-inch, 4K screen anywhere in the world.”

Loupe art
Mike Stasny, Most Sex Insults Fashion, print.

Artwork courtesy of Loupe

Loupe art
Micah Daniel Lewis, Untitled 9, print.

Artwork courtesy of Loupe

Loupe art
Donna Garcia, Ghost Dancer, print.

Artwork courtesy of Loupe

Loupe art
Sivan Dayan, Untitled 4, painting.

Artwork courtesy of Loupe

Loupe can’t replace the experience of going to a museum or gallery, “in the same way that streaming music doesn’t replace going to see your favorite band in concert,” Bustelo says. Instead, “it’s designed to bring energy, tranquility, and creativity to you while you’re doing a variety of things in your home, similar to having music running in the background.”

Find Loupe streaming at the AC and Moxy hotels in Midtown, or visit loupeart.com for the Savannah College of Art & Design channel, featuring student and alumni art.

This article appears in our August 2020 issue.

Delicacy and strength coalesce in Atlanta artist Niki Zarrabi’s floral paintings

Niki Zarrabi
Niki Zarrabi at her home studio in Buckhead.

Photograph by Patrick Heagney

Painter Niki Zarrabi is not the first artist to draw inspiration from the femininity, fertility, and mortality of flowers, but her surrealist series on the subject, Femme Petale, feels fresh and modern.

Her paintings have a three-dimensional effect, rendering the flowers with vivid details. The layers and true-to-life delicacy of the blossoms make it seem like the images could crumble in your hands. Vibrant colors ooze from the petals in drips, as if melting back into the earth: a reflection of life, death, reincarnation, and the interconnectedness of all living things. Zarrabi says she has always been fascinated with biology, spirituality, and matriarchy; it’s perhaps no surprise she cites artist Georgia O’Keeffe as a key influence, with her work exploring the role of women as the source of life on earth.

Niki Zarrabi
SHAB, a 2019 piece from her Femme Petale series

Courtesy of the artist

“The colors found in nature are muted, with random, bright bursts, so I mimic that in my paintings,” says Zarrabi, a first-generation Persian American. “There are endless layers and patterns but also a delicacy. The fact that we’re even alive—it’s all so fragile.”

Biology books, house plants, and jars of paint line the shelves in Zarrabi’s sunny Buckhead home studio. She started painting flora with oils and acrylics on wood-grain panels while she was in school at Georgia State University. Since graduating in 2014, the Marietta native has scaled her paintings to include murals. In Atlanta, her work blooms on Fabu Face Spa, the dog park for Portico Apartments in Buckhead, and Fresh Structures flower shop.

Niki Zarrabi
Zarrabi has created floral works on canvas but also Plexiglass, organza, and stretched pantyhose.

Photograph by Patrick Heagney

“With Atlanta booming, there are more opportunities for artists to get work and show in galleries,” says Zarrabi. “Companies are coming here, and they want murals, so the gap between street art and fine art is closing.”

Zarrabi says that for her, painting flowers is a new take on buying flowers for someone. Lately, she’s been obsessed with peonies and magnolias, but her flower of the moment changes. She just wants people to be immersed when they’re viewing the paintings, just as she is while she’s creating them. nikizarrabi.com

This article appears in our Spring 2020 issue of Atlanta Magazine’s HOME.

After 25 years of leading Theatrical Outfit, director Tom Key takes a final bow

Tom Key
Tom Key in The Dancing Handkerchief

Photograph courtesy of theatrical outfit

Tom Key planned to exit on a note of fanfare this spring, ending his 25-year run as artistic director of Theatrical Outfit, one of Atlanta’s oldest professional theater companies.

The 69-year-old writer, director, and actor had timed his departure with the theater’s production of a new adaptation of Cotton Patch Gospel—a rollicking and reverent (but never preachy) musical that reimagines the story of Jesus Christ, in which the son of Mary and Joe Davidson is born in a trailer behind a motor lodge in rural Georgia and lynched 33 years later by the Ku Klux Klan. The production is nearly synonymous with Key, who cowrote the book, starred in its off-Broadway debut in 1981, and staged it a dozen times over the years.

Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has intervened, putting Key’s fitting farewell in peril as Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms prohibited large gatherings in order to stem the spread of the virus.

But Key’s vision for producing theater that enlightens and uplifts eventually will prevail under the direction of his replacement, Matt Torney, a native of Belfast, Ireland, and the former associate artistic director of Studio Theatre in Washington D.C. Torney’s selection by the board of directors received Key’s enthusiastic support.

“Matt was so aligned with [our] mission and so ready and in such a good position to take the baton,” says Key. “He’s also got a skillset and a toolbox that are just the right qualifications.”

Theatrical Outfit achieved many milestones during Key’s tenure. When he began in 1995, the theater had a budget of less than $300,000; today, it’s nearly $2 million. In 2005, the company purchased and renovated the $5.5 million Balzer Theater at Herren’s in downtown Atlanta. And the theater has produced more than a dozen world premieres, including Janece Shaffer’s Brownie Points and adaptations of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces and Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying.

When his job ends in June, Key will return to his origins as a freelance writer, actor, and director. He has at least one job lined up already: This time next year, he’ll get his chance to shine on the Theatrical Outfit stage again when he stars in the Tony Award–winning drama The Humans, which Torney will direct.

This article appears in our May 2020 issue.

Jericho Brown reflects on winning the Pulitzer Prize and the black poets who came before him

Jericho Brown The Tradition Pulitzer
Jericho Brown won the Pulitzer Prize on Monday

Photograph courtesy of Copper Canyon Books

In Jericho Brown’s stirring poem “The Virus,” he writes:

I want you
To heed that I’m still here
Just beneath your skin and in
Each organ
The way anger dwells in a man
Who studies the history of his nation.
If I can’t leave you
Dead, I’ll have
You vexed.

The title and sentiment feel especially poignant as the world faces a pandemic and Georgia is making national headlines for the killing of an unarmed black man, Ahmaud Arbery. This collision of beauty and disaster while grappling with racism is exemplary of the poems in Brown’s book, The Tradition. Released in April 2019, The Tradition is divided into three parts: The first part utilizes Greek mythology to reflect on nature and race; the second part on labor and race; and the third on the entanglement of violence, race, and love. It’s the third book by the Louisiana native, who directs the Creative Writing program at Emory University. The resonance of “The Virus” and other pieces in the book, is just what he intended—a reflection on the ills that have been committed by and against America.

Jericho Brown The Tradition Pulitzer
Brown’s Pulitzer-winning book

Photograph courtesy of Copper Canyon Press

On Monday, Brown was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for The Tradition, and he has been moving nonstop ever since. When we spoke on the phone, he had just woken up from a much-needed nap and was still processing what it meant to see a dream he’s had since he was eight-years-old come true.

You weren’t born Jericho Brown. Why did you decide to change your name?
I was born Nelson Demery III, and it was an exciting name to have when I was a kid because it felt kind of grand. As I got older, it was a name that meant that I was walking around in other people’s shoes, and I wanted to walk around in my own shoes, especially after I started getting poems published. I love my dad so much, but we always had this really contentious relationship when I was growing up. I remember looking at a poem the first time it came out and looking at the name Nelson Demery III, and thinking ‘wow, I don’t even get this to be mine.’ I changed my name because I wanted to put my own stamp on my own work.

I used to put mustard on my sandwiches until I was in my 20s because my dad put mustard on his sandwiches, and I don’t even like mustard. One of the things I wanted to do in this book to see how many things we take for granted and act as if are normal and they’re not okay. If you don’t like mustard, you can take it off your sandwich, but there are other things that are much larger and much more serious, that we claim not to like, but they’re still a part of our lives.

What inspired you to write The Tradition?
There are three answers to that question. When I first moved into my house, I was working on a flower bed in front of my porch. My neighbors did this thing I had never experienced where they would come and say hi and bring food. I was working on a flower bed, and one of my neighbors rang the doorbell and said she was looking for the man or the woman of the house. I announced that it was me, and I realized that she could imagine me doing the work to take care of these flowers, but couldn’t imagine that they were my flowers.

At the same time, we were seeing these images of unarmed black people being murdered by police for no reason. I was brokenhearted about all of them, but especially Tamir Rice. I don’t know what made me watch that video over and over, but that’s the one that sent me to the page. Everybody in this country knows we have a problem with policing or that relates to race. But that knowledge doesn’t reconcile us to one another.

Another thing I was writing about is assault. I am always writing about Greek myths, [which contain] a lot of rape. The titles are often called “The rape of . . .” or “The assault of . . .” and these stories are handed to us as if it’s the normal trouble. We say someone got raped as if there was no agency. It’s not something that I wanted to write about, but once I got started, I realized that it’s something that needed to be a part of the book.

In the poem “The Tradition,” you compare black men slain by police to perennials. You mentioned Tamir Rice earlier. Does each instance of hearing about black men killed by police feel like the end of a world for you?
Some of our earliest images of this have to do with postcards that were made during lynchings. In a more contemporary sense, we have Rodney King’s beating, which black people had to watch on television with a knowledge of just how regularly something like that could happen. It’s not that it feels apocalyptic to me. It puts me in a position where I cringe to think that the apocalyptic world is worse than that.

Tell me what are you working on now? What’s next for you?
I’m working on essays about my life, poetry, and about our culture, our society. I have a lot of essays that have been published in different magazines and I’m compiling them into a book that will be part memoir and part criticism.

Who are your favorite poets and writers?
Today, I am feeling most inspired by Gwendolyn Brooks, Yusef Komunyakaa, Natasha Trethewey, Tracy K. Smith, Gregory Pardlo, Tyehimba Jess, and Rita Dove. This is the 70th anniversary of Brooks’ win of the Pulitzer Prize, which means it’s the 70th anniversary of the first time a black person won. It’s hard for me to say without getting emotional. I feel like she’s with me and that I’m walking in her footsteps. All the poets I named are all the black poets who’ve ever won the Pulitzer Prize. There are eight of us now in the 103-year history of the prize, and I’m just happy to be part of that number.

True Colors’ production of School Girls sparks conversation about colorism and pretty privilege

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School GirlsIt’s 1986, and Paulina is the queen bee at Aburi Girls’ Senior High School in Ghana. She and her clique are abuzz with anticipation for a visit from the Miss Ghana pageant recruiter. Paulina is a shoo-in, and winning will put her one step closer to marrying her athlete boyfriend and moving to America, home of White Castle and Calvin Klein. But her plan is thrown into jeopardy when Ericka, a mixed-race girl, transfers from Ohio.

Director Tinashe Kajese-Bolden will bring Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play to life at True Colors Theatre Company, February 11 to March 8, as part of its She Griots season, in which black women star in or have written all shows. Kajese-Bolden says she is excited to work with the all-female ensemble, familiar territory for the actor-director who won a 2017 Suzi Bass Award for Synchronicity Theatre’s Eclipsed, a play about sexual violence against women during the Liberian Civil War.

School Girls, her latest directorial work, is based on an incident that happened in Ghana, where pageant officials selected Yayra Erica Nego—a biracial, American woman who was born and raised in Minnesota—as their representative for the 2011 Miss Universe contest, allegedly believing her lighter complexion would give them a better chance at winning.

DeKalb County native Ellen Ifeoluwa George portrays Paulina, a beautiful dark-skinned girl with a caustic wit, who, beneath that armor, longs for affirmation. In a time when Madonna and Princess Diana are the beauty standards, she sees Ericka’s lighter skin as a threat.

George says that she can relate to Paulina’s struggle with her complexion because she has been teased for her skin tone: In elementary school, she says, she was called racial slurs; one of her first university professors told her she would mostly be hired to play prostitutes and strippers.

Growing up, she participated in a lot of sports, especially cheerleading: “I was one of the darkest girls on the squad.” As a “young and naive” middle-schooler, she would cheer for basketball games but not football, “because it was outside, and I didn’t want to get darker,” she says. “Luckily, I have amazing parents who encouraged me to embrace and love myself.”

Augusta native Isake Akanke, who also worked with Kajese-Bolden in Eclipsed, will play Gifty, one of the girls in Paulina’s pack.

“Beauty comes from within; it’s in how you treat yourself and how you treat others,” says Akanke. “I love when we as women are at our natural, most authentic selves. There’s the glitz and glam but also the gutter that comes with being a woman.”

Kajese-Bolden’s goal is to get the cast talking about those things in the rehearsal room—body image, body shaming, beauty standards—so their performances will inspire the audience to continue those conversations after the curtain closes.

“I hope that it leaves people feeling excited that, even in conflict, there is a kernel of commonality that we can lean on.”

School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play will be on stage at Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre February 11 to March 8.

This article appears in our February 2020 issue.

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