Jocelyn Bioh and Once on This Island

Jocelyn Bioh on the Once On This Island Film Adaptation and Colorism

A global pandemic forced playwright Jocelyn Bioh to put a pause on the world premiere of her new play Nollywood Dreams in the middle of rehearsals. The subsequent rise of COVID-19 cases in New York City back in March pushed theaters to temporarily close their doors and suspend the play Bioh has been trying to get produced for nearly eight years. “I was just really excited about it finally having a world premiere and then the pandemic hit and everything shut down,” said Bioh. “The set was built, the costumes and the wigs were bought, and everything was all ready to go.”  With the show currently at a stand-still, and the date for the return of theater is anyone’s guess, Bioh had to find other ways to honor her craft. “I’ve been able to still continue to do work for film and TV. I feel really lucky in that sense that I’ve been able to still have some semblance of a job via the various TV and film projects that I’m attached to,” Bioh expressed.

Though Bioh was working on an exciting new project ahead of the pandemic, it was her play School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play performed at MCC in 2018 that thrust her into the theater spotlight and most certainly solidified her as this generation’s playwright to watch. I spoke to Bioh about her award-winning play, her thoughts on colorism, and the Once on This Island live-action film—her latest writing project for Disney+.

When you wrote School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play did you know you know you had something great? Was fire coming out of your pen as you wrote?

From the time I first wrote the initial draft of School Girls, to it getting produced was about a year-and-a-half. I did not anticipate that it would be successful in any way. I was actually more nervous that people weren’t going to get it. Because it was my playwriting debut, I knew that there was a lot riding on the success of the play. I was working really hard to make sure the story I was trying to put out – I was writing it in the best way possible. I was more focused on the rewriting aspects of the play and making sure every single word was exactly in the right place. I’m a very meticulous rewriter. I have written close to 30 different drafts of School Girls. I was really focused on the crafting of the work and that the messages come across clear.

By the time we got to opening night and all of the reviews started coming in, I was concerned. I said, “I don’t think these critics are going to get it.” Which would ultimately be fine with me. I was more invested in the audience being diverse and that the people who would relate to this story be the ones who came to see it. But I’d be lying if I said that reviews are not important to artists, especially playwrights. When the reviews started coming in and they were good, I was like, “Whoa!” In a lot of ways after that opening night, my entire life changed. I really owe a lot to that play that I did not anticipate in any way.

Your play gives audiences an intimate view of how colorism played a role in a Ghanaian beauty pageant. Why did you make colorism a focal point in this play?

I have my own intimate relationship with colorism as a dark-skinned woman; specifically, as a dark-skinned woman who also went into the entertainment industry. I’m also an actor as well. I just feel like my entire life I’ve always felt inferior to women who were lighter than me. This is also a societal thing. This is not just my own doing. Everywhere I looked on TV and in movies, this message was constantly being fed to me. When I grew older and wanted to start dating, the guys I was attracted to were not attracted to me, but they were definitely attracted to my lighter-skinned friends and that continued through my entire life.

I had a very long journey to owning my beauty. I was an adult by the time I really owned and accepted who I was and reveled in it. I wanted to write a play acknowledging how hard that journey can be for many young women and hopefully give them something that would help aid the process faster. The hope was that they would watch the play, understand what it was, and get to the finish line quicker than I did. I don’t have a solution for colorism other than calling attention to it and hopefully people recognizing their own implicit biases and how they participated in colorism.

It was very important to me to be able to do that without it coming off like an afterschool special. The word colorism is not mentioned in the play because I wanted people to see colorism play out, as opposed to being given the definition. I wanted people to just see these young women’s experiences with colorism and how it affected them. That’s the one thing I will say is if I write nothing else about colorism, I’m actually really proud that I was able to do that for myself.

The dynamics of an all-female cast is what makes School Girls so special. Was there a reason for your omission of a male character?

We didn’t need them. White supremacy is something that is so clear and blatantly obvious, it can appear in a piece of work that has no white people in it. You just know it when you see it. I think this also includes the patriarchy, and in particular, the male gaze. It can appear in any form of work: in art, in theater, in TV and films, without any men needing to be in it. Their gaze is so heavily prevalent and hovering over every single thing. It can all be traced back. A Western idea of beauty standards or beauty standards can be traced back to some guy who decided that this is what a beautiful woman looks like. In the script, I have the characters talking about their boyfriends and how they love Bobby Brown and New Edition and all of these things, so men are still a part of the fabric of the show. But yeah, I didn’t actually need them for the play.

In addition to writing, you are an actress who has appeared on Broadway and beyond. Does one art form help you to do the other better?

As an actor, I worked mostly on new plays. I’ve only ever been in a handful of plays that were not new works. There is a different way of approaching work when you’re doing a new play because it’s ever-evolving and ever-changing. You’re creating the character along with the playwright and figuring things out. There’s still a big creation process to that. You have to stay pretty flexible in craft and in character. I feel like I take a lot of that and I apply that to the characters that I write. I write character-driven stories I think because I’m always playing crazy characters. I understand how to build story through character. I think that that all affects the other, but when I’m an actor in a play, I’m just doing that. I’m not trying to be prescriptive to the playwright and say, “I think this character should do this or say this” or “I feel like saying it this way.” I say what the text is and serve the playwright as best I can. I would hope that when I’m the playwright and someone’s working on a new play, that they would give me that same respect too because it’s not finished until it’s done. I do think that one informs the other for sure.

Some of the biggest theater news to come out this year is that you have been called to write the script for Disney+’s Once on This Island film adaptation. How did you become connected to the film?

It was a pretty standard process. My agent sent me a message saying that Disney+ and Marc Platt were planning to produce and develop the Broadway musical Once on This Island into a live-action film and that they were interested in me writing it. Usually, they go to several writers at the same time and they hit up one writer until someone says, “Yes,” basically. I feel like they might have approached other writers and maybe those writers were just too busy to do it, but they reached out to me.

Initially, I actually said no because while I love the musical and its part of so many of us there is a slightly problematic element to it in terms of what the storyline is—in particular how the musical ends. That fear of being fully dragged on social media for perpetuating a potentially problematic storyline, especially to a 2020, or whenever it comes out, audience, I was like, “Nah, I’m not trying to get dragged on the internet. NO.” It was actually a couple of my really good friends and my boyfriend who encouraged me to really think about it because there is a potential that I could maybe change [the ending] and Disney would be down with it. When I thought about it in that way, I was like, “Okay. Yeah. Maybe.”

After a series of meetings just to and this is the boring part where you talk to the execs, you present your version of the film. You talk to the director and you present your version of the film. Then eventually someone calls you and says, “You got the job.” That’s what happened.

Have you begun the scriptwriting process?

I’ve written a script already. My producers are now reading it and we’ll go through the notes process. There’s so much process. People don’t even realize how much process is between getting a job. Here’s the thing. I got the job in January. The press release for the Once on This Island live-action film came out in July. I had already been writing a script for months when the press release came out. Then you have to go through the process of doing notes. Then eventually Disney will green-light it beyond development, and to actually get produced. There’s no guarantee, unfortunately, that it’ll get produced, but I’m hoping that I write a very convincing script that will tell them you absolutely have to produce it. So, knock on wood.

Besides the ending, were there any pieces of the plot that you felt that you had to expand on?

I just felt like it was important to me to update the story as best I could. I did want to honor the legacy of the Broadway musical. I wanted to honor the legacy of “My Love, My Love, or The Peasant Girl,” the book that it’s based on by Rosa Guy. That book is essentially a Caribbean remake of The Little Mermaid. It’s like I’m the fifth interpretation of this story. I just wanted to honor those legacies, but also bring it fully up to date, and make it fresh, contemporary, and modern. I also wanted to address some of the plot points or story devices that I thought were just ever so slightly problematic or wouldn’t read or register with a modern audience. I think I’ve done that.

We are currently watching performance arts institutions rethink how they have or have not incorporated diversity and inclusion. As a playwright and actress of color, what are some of the challenges you face or continue to face in your career?

I think this year has really unlocked quite a lot in terms of racial inequalities and injustices. I think now there’s a lot of guards at the gate who have to acknowledge their parts and participating whether consciously or subconsciously in all of that and make a decision about what they’re going to do about it. I’ve always been speaking out about diversity and inclusion and equity and racism within the business since I got involved in the theater and entertainment. I’ve never not been vocal. I think now that we have a platform and that people seem to be listening, those stories can get amplified in a way and hopefully be the catalyst for change. A lot remains to be seen. With theater being closed, we have no idea how all of this is going to shift and change, but the hope is that it will because theater can’t survive as it is now.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.