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'School Girls' teaches important (and often hilarious) lessons about growing up

'School Girls'

'School Girls' Dan Norman Photography

By subtitling her script School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play, Jocelyn Bioh preemptively claimed the way she might have guessed people would describe it anyway.

It's also a means of setting expectations: Although the 2017 play deals with heavy issues of bullying and discrimination, you go into the theater ready for the kind of comic energy that the Jungle's new production delivers in generous doses.

The play was inspired by the true story of Miss Ghana 2011, a woman born in Minnesota. "She beat out two of Ghana's most famous models at the time," writes Bioh in a script note. The win sparked controversy among observers who suspected pageant officials had selected the Ghanaian-American contestant because of her light skin tone.

School Girls takes us further back, its fictional narrative set in a boarding school in Ghana circa 1986. The female students under Headmistress Francis (a warm Ivory Doublette) are abuzz over the impending arrival of a former beauty queen (Hope Cervantes) who's now a pageant recruiter seeking promising contestants for the national crown.

The school may not have mean girls, plural, but it certainly has a queen bee: Paulina (Ashe Jaafaru), who lords it over her classmates and isn't above using blackmail to get what she wants. What she wants now is dirt on the new girl, Ericka (Eponine Diatta), the American daughter of a wealthy local businessman.

Bioh isn't out for subtlety here (at least, not initially), and director Shá Cage doesn't ask her actors to pull any punches. Paulina's behavior is downright villainous, but even as Jaafaru struts menacingly across the stage, she telegraphs her character's desperate insecurity. When the casually confident Ericka arrives, it's immediately plain there's going to be trouble.

Ultimately, the two rivals find rapprochement in a deeper mutual understanding of how both their lives have been shaped by skin color and class. This is territory American kids of the '80s didn't see in after-school specials; Bioh complicates typical teen narratives in a play that's nonetheless built on broad strokes along the lines of the YA novels her characters are seen reading.

The girls, who are so close that they often physically squeeze together on stage, come into their individual stories as the show progresses: the end of Paulina's imperious reign allows them to grow, though it also involves some hard lessons.

Kiara Jackson, Aishé Keita, Salome Mergia, and Nimene Sierra Wureh make the most of moments like an outrageously over-the-top show choir performance of "The Greatest Love of All," with Ericka's improvised performance making clear which student in this school has watched the most MTV.

Despite its thematic weight, the play has a lot of fun in its brisk single act. Ghanaian-American designer Jacqueline Addison's bright costumes, on an airy set by Seitu Jones and Bianca Janine Pettis, help situate these School Girls in a playful African '80s aesthetic. Eventually, of course, the games have to end.

School Girls
Jungle Theater
Through April 14