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A high school’s precarious pecking order is thrown into turmoil with the arrival of a headstrong new girl bold enough to challenge the reigning queen bee. Yes, that describes Tina Fey’s Mean Girls, but it’s also the premise for Jocelyn Bioh’s theatrical comedy School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play (★★★☆☆). Presented in a bright, compelling production at Round House Theatre, Bioh’s play cleverly tweaks Fey’s formula by setting the story in 1986, at a respected, if underfunded, girls’ school in rural Ghana, where the distinct concerns and insecurities of these brown-skinned African girls add unique cultural dimension to an otherwise universal coming-of-age satire.
Nicole A. Watson’s staging often overshoots the satirical target, though, with broad flourishes designed to punch every laugh-line and wring gasps from every insult. Still, the cast gels just fine playing in that sitcom rhythm, mining humor and pathos from the teen beauty pageant rivalry revolving around popular girl Paulina (Kashayna Johnson) and new girl Ericka (Claire Saunders).
Johnson is especially good essaying the queen bee whose potent sting and imposing posture can’t quite conceal her roiling fear of failing to live up to her own hype. This is a mean girl we’ve seen before, but Johnson’s assured portrayal is galvanizing to the plot, and lends an essential assist to the four actors playing Paulina’s beauty conscious clique: Moriamo Temidayo Akibu and Debora Crabbe as quirky cousins Gifty and Mercy, Jade Jones as bullied Nana, and Awa Sal Secka as Ama, the girl most likely to learn how to fire back when Paulina goes on the attack.
For a mean girl character we haven’t seen before, Akibu, with their breakneck timing and fresh delivery, turns goofy but shrewd Gifty into the show’s real revelation. Audiences might be better served by spending more time with her than with the show’s two adult characters, Headmistress Francis (Theresa Cunningham) and Miss Ghana pageant recruiter Eloise (Shirine Babb). Ex-rivals who both attended the school as girls, Eloise and the Headmistress are ostensibly intended as grownup models for the clique’s potential futures as either sisters or adversaries to other women, but the ladies’ clashes and ultimate showdown fizzle.
Similarly, the show progresses towards an implausible showdown between Paulina and Ericka that feels unearned considering these two haven’t really had time to cultivate the depth of nastiness that plays out between them. The production might hit its highest note when it sets aside all that cattiness to focus on what harmony these girls could cultivate at school — and in the world — if they stopped tearing each other down. As a choir, as a company of equals, or as the future leaders, educators, and mothers of a nation, they could be unstoppable.
School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play runs through Oct. 13 at The Round House Theatre in Bethesda. Tickets are $32 to $68. Call 240-644-1100, or visit www.RoundHouseTheatre.org.
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