“If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must be a Muhfucka” takes on beauty standards in sold-out Spring Ex performances
The Spring Ex production, which ran from Feb. 16 to Feb. 18, was co-directed by Simisola Fagbemi ’24 and Megan Ruoro ’24.
Courtesy of Regina Sung
From Thursday to Saturday night, the Yale Repertory Theatre was filled with audience members taking in “If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must be a Muhfucka,” a reflection on beauty standards inspired by West African folklore.
“If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must be a Muhfucka,” the Dramat-selected Spring Ex production, had the audience follow along as characters Akim, Massassi, Kaya and Adama — played by Tyler Watts ’25, Kadyn Liburd ’25, Eula Doele ’26 and Zada Brown ’24 — battled both self-imposed and societal beauty standards, specifically those that exist for Black women. Scripted by playwright Tori Sampson, the play, which was co-directed by students Simisola Fagbemi ’24 and Megan Ruoro ’24, brought a story based on a Nigerian folktale to one of Yale’s largest stages.
“I want people to consider the ways in which the beauty standard controls our lives and what that standard looks like for Black women specifically,” stage manager Maya Fonkeu ’25 told the News. “This play does a great job of addressing a serious topic with some humor, but I don’t want the jokes and puns to distract from the message behind it. The beauty standard can do some real harm in our society and I want people to reflect on the ways it affects different people in different capacities.”
Supporting Fonkeu as assistant stage manager was Lula Talenfeld ’25. In addition to the cast and directors, the show was choreographed by Katia George ’25, produced by Chidima Anekwe ’24 and featured music composed by musical director Vyann Eteme ’25 and assistant music director Darren Markwei ’25. The first of four shows was on Thursday, Feb. 16 at 8 p.m. The last show, which was on Saturday night, was fully sold out.
In the play, four women struggle with beauty standards in different ways that tie them all to each other. Massassi, Kaya and Adama all envy Akim for her beauty — but Akim concurrently struggles with persistent pressure from her parents to preserve that beauty. Massassi deals with objectification and despises Akim for the attention that a boy in town, Kasim, gives to her. Kaya struggles to be socially regarded as a full person, in spite of not fitting into the normative beauty standard. Lastly, Adama tries to combat intense external expectations.
Massassi, Kaya and Adama attempt repeatedly to damage Akim’s beauty, ultimately leading to Akim and Adama nearly drowning in the River JuJu. When Adama and Akim emerge from a “transcendent experience,” Fonkeu explained, they have a new take on society. As the town’s Chief deliberates on an appropriate punishment for Kaya and Massassi following the attempted murder, Massassi also comes to understand that she cannot exist within society’s restrictive expectations.
“It’s important to note that there are no villains in this story; some may be quick to assign such a role to Massassi, but she deals with her own struggles and expectations that make her a victim as well,” Fonkeu wrote. “The only ‘evil’ in this plot is the beauty standard.”
“If Pretty Hurts” concludes with Massassi waking up from a dream and coming to the realization that she has the power to determine her own self-worth beyond her physical beauty as dictated by external standards.
The play is based on “Of the Pretty Girl and the Seven Jealous Women,” which is a Nigerian folktale set in a “whimsical world,” Fagbemi said. Accordingly, the creative vision for the production was a priority.
“I think we really wanted to lean into the magical realism aspects of the story,” Ruoro said. “It very much felt like a storybook story, so we leaned into that in our set design.”
The team began rehearsing the show in September. Leading up to tech week, their rehearsals included accent work, monologue practice, blocking, dancing and singing.
Another core goal for the directors was to open up the theater space to people that might not necessarily consider themselves “theater people,” Ruoro and Fagbemi both told the News.
“I’m very proud of all the people who were involved in this production [for whom] it was their first time doing theater, not just at Yale but in life, [and] of the environment we created,” Ruoro said. “I think we became very much a family.”
Participants spoke about their appreciation of the community that the cast and production team offered.
Brown told the News she had a “really great time performing” in “If Pretty Hurts” and noted her love for the inclusivity of participants of all experience levels.
“From the beginning of the process, everyone, regardless of whether they had tons of experience or were first time actors, was so kind and gracious to one another,” Brown wrote. “Performing on stage in front of an audience was just the most rewarding part of the whole process, it was so fun hearing their laughter, gasps, and applause, and I was really really happy that so many people felt so touched by our show.”
The production was Fagbemi and Ruoro’s directorial debuts. Fagbemi said she was inspired to put on “If Pretty Hurts” at Yale after she stumbled upon the script in a bookstore last summer and asked Ruoro if she wanted to produce it with her.
Fagbemi and Ruoro had previously acted together in Once On This Island, another predominantly-Black production that ran at the Lighten Theater from Apr. 16-18 2022. Other members of “If Pretty Hurts” were also involved in Once On This Island, a shared experience that Fagbemi said helped influence the development of “If Pretty Hurts.”
“It pretty much just takes one show to empower people to kind of do their own stuff, which I think is really fun and cool,” Fagbemi said.
Fagbemi told the News the show was like her “child” and she found the experience altogether empowering.
“My parents are Cameroonian so seeing West African culture represented on stage in such a unique manner was very exciting,” Fonkeu wrote. “And of course, being a Black woman working on a show that deals with Black beauty standards made me very invested and able to personally relate to the themes the show deals with.”
The first showing of Sampson’s play was on March 10, 2019.