BWW Review: SCHOOL GIRLS; OR, THE AFRICAN MEAN GIRLS PLAY at Round House Theatre
Playwright Jocelyn Bioh long wanted to name her 2017 work about the social interworkings of young women in Ghana simply "School Girls." But it wasn't until she added the subtitle, "African Mean Girls Play," that she fully nailed what she was doing.
In full display in a rollicking performance at Bethesda's Round House Theatre, Bioh brings all the elements of what's been associated with Tina Fey's movie and subsequent musical; or popular movies from "Clueless" to "Heathers" - all in the distinctive Ghanian accent.
The year is 1986 and the school is atwitter about the impending Miss Ghana competition, which this Queen Bee, Paulina (the splendid Kashayna Johnson) is confident in taking. She makes her orbit believe she's the best candidate as well.
Each of them may be wearing identical school uniforms, but in Nicole A. Watson's direction, they each flourish into their own personalities, particularly Jade Jones' proud Nana, Debora Crabbe and Miriam Temidayo Akibu's comic cousins, and Awa Sal Secka's skeptical Ama.
All are under Paulina's rule until a new student enters - Claire Saunders' Ericka.
Paulina may be talking about vague connections to America and her cousins there who shop at such glamorous spots as Walmart and listen to Bobby Brown, but here is a young woman coming directly from the U.S., with all the lotions, designer dresses and music that involves.
And when there is a deliciously campy performance of Whitney Houston's "The Greatest Love of All" (and there was no way to avoid the song in mid-1980s pageants worldwide apparently), Ericka is also the standout singer.
But there is another issue at work here, and that is where Bioh slips in more serious considerations, the importance of shadings in Africa, such that a lighter skin connotes a higher social ranking and some burn their skin with caustic lighteners to get there.
Shirine Babb, as a pageant official (and former winner) stresses how monetary success and eventual international wins are predicated on a lighter-toned Miss Ghana, as well. And Theresa Cunningham, wielding a strong and loving arm as headmistress, is at once appalled by all this, and enticed by the possibility her school stands to win some money if they produce a winner as well.
So what is largely a hugely enjoyable ride from an widely talented cast is girded by some significant and relevant issues as well.
One caveat is that at a time when casting is increasingly becoming colorblind, casting here was not just based on color but shadings of color. Likewise the mean body shaming of the Nana character seemingly necessitated casting based on size. But I suppose these are additional issues to consider arising from Bioh's provocative writing.
The Round House's production of "School Girls" is one of 10 being mounted in regional theaters this fall after a successful off-Broadway run. But one could hardly imagine a better treatment, from the vivid and compelling cast to the accurate, yet colorful African cafeteria set by Paige Hathaway.
That it comes with the grand reopening of the theater, bringing the audience closer to the stage, makes it a good reason for celebration.
Running time: About 85 minutes, no intermission.
Photo credit: C. Stanley Photography.
"School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play" continues through Oct. 12 at the Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD. Tickets at 240-644-1100 or online.