These thoughts come to mind as you watch the women of the playful and piquant “School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play,” Jocelyn Bioh’s charming comedy of adolescent angst. A satirical study of the universal insecurities and hierarchical struggles of West African teenage girls, the play receives first-class treatment from director Nicole A. Watson and a cast eager to spread the aforesaid joy.
“The African Mean Girls Play” was a big hit in late 2017 for off-Broadway’s MCC Theater, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be one as well for Round House Theatre, which is back in its Bethesda home after an extensive interior makeover. Before, the company lobby looked like the reception area of a medical practice; now, redesigned in warmer tones and outfitted with a bar that runs half the length of the space, it’s a welcoming way station on your path to a performance.
The theater itself has undergone modification, with the installation of a thrust stage, one that, as its name implies, extends into the audience more generously. The overall effect is a renovation matching the upgrade of Round House in recent years as a purveyor of dramatic art. More refined surroundings harmonize with the refinements in the productions.
If a company wants to perk up the place, then Bioh’s play seems an ideal adornment, too. At 85 minutes, it’s abbreviated, even a bit slight. But the playwright seems to know these characters inside and out, so there’s no time wasted in an audience getting to know them, too.
The play takes place in 1986 in a girls’ school in southeastern Ghana; in the way cliques form and the students coo over clothes and singers, it may as well be just off the Beltway. As in Tina Fey’s “Mean Girls,” the social dynamic at the Aburi Girls’ Senior High School is diabolically Darwinian. Paulina (Kashayna Johnson) is Aburi’s Regina George, the bullying leader of the pack, brooking no back talk from her cowed posse: best friend Ama (Awa Sal Secka), acolytes Mercy and Gifty (Debora Crabbe and Moriamo Temidayo Akibu), and browbeaten Nana (Jade Jones). The forthcoming auditions for the Miss Ghana beauty pageant have the girls in a tizzy — and Paulina in high dudgeon as a lighter-skinned transfer student, Ericka (Claire Saunders) steals the favor of a preening judge, former beauty queen Eloise (Shirine Babb).
Interlaced throughout “School Girls” is a note of poignancy: for these girls, the pageant is not an example of female exploitation or marker of shabby Western values. In a developing country, it seems, it’s one of the few sure ways up and out. To this aspirational idea, Bioh adds the divisive issue of how beauty is perceived in a black society. The resentments that boil over in the play reflect some of the distorted priorities that white standards for physical perfection have imposed on the rest of the world. Not that Ericka, who’s moved to Ghana from Ohio, does not understand racial injustice: being biracial in America left scars for her as well.
Filtered through the sensibilities of Bioh’s characters, though, “School Girls” is an affectionate portrait, rather than a harsh or self-righteous one. The actresses playing the students themselves are dynamite comedians, especially Crabbe and Akibu, in supposedly subordinate roles; their reactions to Johnson’s Paulina, and to each other, are a production unto itself. Secka imbues the taken-for-granted Ama with impressive depth, and you ache for the pressure that Paulina puts on Jones’s Nana, who pines for acceptance.
Johnson carries off the most challenging role with exceptional skill, revealing Paulina’s objectionable aspects before we get to see a more sympathetic side. The anger and the vulnerability both come through.
By the way: Peruse the program bios and notice how many of these actresses are based in Washington. Let’s see more of all of them!
And watch for the funny way Watson guides the actresses through a butchered version of a Whitney Huston song. It’s the spirit of Pyramus and Thisbe from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” transferred to the shores of Africa.
Paige Hathaway’s design for the school cafeteria and Ivania Stack’s prom-style dresses for the auditions fittingly enhance the play’s exuberance — all in service of an excitement that fills a refreshed space with a freshness of talent.
School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play, by Jocelyn Bioh. Directed by Nicole A. Watson. Set, Paige Hathaway; costumes, Ivania Stack; lighting, Martha Mountain; sound, Tosin Olufolabi; music direction, Kevin McAllister; dialects, Kim James Bey. With Theresa Cunningham. About 85 minutes. $46-$73. Through Oct. 13 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. 240-644-1100. roundhousetheatre.org.