Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
While that is a fair, 50,000-feet view of what audiences will see in School Girls..., as we descend closer to ground level, we see more going on in Bioh's rendition. The context, after all, is very different. Secondary education is not nearly as universal in Ghana as in the United States. In Ghana, mandatory attendance only extends through middle school. Moreover, public school in Ghana, as in much of the developing world, does not mean that school is free. Often there are fees parents must pay, including costly room and board for boarding schools that offer education to students in rural areas not served by a high school. Those whose parents are able to pay such fees feel a sense of privilege and duty to justify the confidence their families have shown in them, the weight of high aspirations always pressing upon their shoulders. Girls may be girls the world round, but for these African girls, there is a lot more at stake in their quest for top grades and honors.
How striking, then, that the five girls we meet at the start of School Girls..., all students at a girls' boarding school in the year 1986, see another pathway to opportunity and fulfillment: the Miss Ghana Beauty Pageant. That this pageant is a big deal in Ghana is factual. It was started in 1957 by Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's first president after independence from British colonial rule, with the intent of providing a platform from which to demonstrate the positive impact of women on Ghanaian society. Women chosen to be Miss Ghana advance to compete in the Miss World pageant (called Miss Global Universe in Bioh's play), in hope of demonstrating to all the world their new nation's ambition and promise. Thus, this dream belongs not only to the girls who take part, but to the entire nation.
Among the five girls there is no question which one will be selected by a scout who is coming to pick contestants for the pageant. Paulina is the "queen bee" of this group, lording over her fellow senior student Ama, and three juniors, Nana, Mercy and Gifty. None of them dares question Paulina, who regales her crew with tales of her handsome pro soccer-playing boyfriend, and her cousin in America who works at an elite restaurant called White Castle. Paulina is forever reminding them how good she is to them, such as how "Nana always ate lunch by herself until I brought her into the group."
All of this comes to a screeching halt when a new student arrives. Erica's father owns a prominent cocoa factory near the school, but she had been living in the United States and is able to give the girls the real low-down on American life. She is outgoing and generous, easily ingratiating herself to her new classmatesto all, that is, but Paulina, who seethes at this challenger to her throne. Worst of all, Erica, who has the desirable trait of a light skin tone, signs up to be in the Miss Ghana contestant. The nerve! The heated, underhanded squabbles that follow are refereed by their stern but loving Headmistress, and the pageant scout, Eloise, who was herself Miss Ghana of 1966. Both Eloise and the Headmistress are alumni of the school, and the two offer very divergent role models to these young women.
The play is chock-full of laughs, some drawn from scripted laugh lines, others imbedded in the situation Bioh unspools. Paulina has the flashiest role and thus the most laughs, and Ashe Jaafaru wrings every bit of humor out of that role, both in her rapid-fire way with a left-handed compliment and her physical posturing that defies the other girls to question her. When the plot leads to an entanglement of hurts and disappointments, Jaafaru smoothly transitions her bearing from the play's villain to one of its victims, gaining our sympathy against all odds. As her rival Erica, Eponine Diatta starts out as a fresh blast of American cool and openness, but builds up her defenses as her stock becomes threatened and fractures appear in her outer shell.
The other four girls are all beautifully played by Kiara Jackson (Mercy), Aishé Keita (Ama), Salome Mergia (Nana), and Nimene Sierra Wureh (Gifty). Mergia especially shines as Nana, drawing our compassion as she combats childhood abuses. These four, along with Jaafaru and Diatta, work together like finely calibrated clockwork, responding to one another with perfect expressiveness and impeccable timing. Added to the students, the two adult characters are well honed by Hope Cervantes, as Headmistress Francis, and Ivory Doublette, as Eloise, each creating a placard for a different approach toward making one's mark in the world.
With this set of actors, the March family in the Jungle's Little Women, and the flawless cast in their production of The Wolves, Jungle Theater has amassed an impressive set of female ensemble performances.
Multi-talented theater artist Shá Cage's direction allows for the comedy to land easily at our feet, while stealthily weaving together the more serious undercurrents of the story that lead to a wholly earned poignancy by the end of its swiftly passing 75 minutes. Cage captures the high-spirited energy of these students on the cusp of adulthood, along with the fragility of their dreams. An audition piece for the pageant scout Eloise, with the six students doing a haphazardly choreographed rendition of "The Greatest Love of All," is hilarious, illustrating both the sense of unity among these six and depth of their individual needs.
Seitu Jones and Bianca Janine Pettis have created a first-class set, depicting the school's modest cafeteria, with tropical trees rising at the sides and behind the structure. Jacqueline Addison's costumes include the somewhat virginal-looking school uniforms, and variations on high school prom gowns the girls wear to audition for the pageant. Katharine Horowitz's soundscape includes the sounds of native birds, adding atmosphere and anchoring the piece to an environment unlike our own, while Karin Olson's lighting enhances the shifts between the play's more comic and more serious scenes.
School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play is not a major dramatic work, but it is a well-written short playreally, a one actthat capably entertains while giving us the opportunity to see how our youth are very much alike around the world, and also how differences in culture and wealth create divergent universes for our youth. It has fun and froth, and heart, and leaves us with a bit of tough material to chew on. Jungle Theater has given it a polished production, well worth seeing, especially as a jumping off point for learning more about what we do, and do not, have in common with other societies in our ever-shrinking world.
School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play, through April 14, 2019, at the Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Avenue S., Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $35.00 - $50.00. Seniors (60+) and students through undergraduates, $5.00 discount. Friday night discounts: Under age 30 and residents of zip code 55408, $25.00; high school and college students (with valid ID), $20.00. Rush tickets: available two hours before performance for unsold seats, $25.00, $20.00 for college students with valid ID (one ticket per ID). For tickets call 612-822-7073 or go to www.jungletheater.com.
Playwright: Jocelyn Bioh; Director: Shá Cage; Set Design: Seitu Jones and Bianca Janine Pettis; Costume Design: Jacqueline Addison; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Sound Designer: Katherine Horowitz; Wig Design: Mary Capers; Vocal Coach: Megan M. Burns; Stage Manager and Properties: John Novak; Technical Director: Alex Olsen; Production Manager: Matthew Earley.
Cast: Hope Cervantes (Eloise Amponsah), Eponine Diatta (Ericka Boafo), Ivory Doublette (Headmistress Francis), Ashe Jaafaru (Paulina Sarpong), Kiara Jackson (Mercy), Aishé Keita (Ama), Salome Mergia (Nana), Brant Miller (American TV host), Brace Nbedu (Ghanaian TV announcer), Nimene Sierra Wureh (Gifty).