Virtually every emotional trauma and competitive humiliation we associate with high school is on full display in Jocelyn Bioh’s “School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play,” now running at Copaken Stage, Kansas City Rep’s downtown venue. Precisely directed by Chip Miller, the production showcases superior work by a gifted cast.
Bioh’s tight, 75-minute one-act is both broadly comic and inescapably poignant as she contemplates the politics, anxieties and aspirations of a group of students at an exclusive all-girls school in Ghana in 1986. As the play opens, the upcoming auditions for Miss Ghana — the first hurdle in competing for a spot in the Miss Universe contest — energize the girls with anticipation and fear.
The Queen Bee of the student body is Paulina (Bri Woods), who has her sights set on winning the competition. Paulina keeps the other girls in line through a mix of Machiavellian manipulation, emotional terrorism and an air of supposedly worldly sophistication. The power dynamic shifts with the arrival of a new student, Ericka (Morgan Walker), whose mixed-race heritage and actual worldliness quickly win the admiration of the girls.
The story, set entirely in the school cafeteria, reaches its comic peak with the appearance of Eloise Amponsah (Chioma Anyanwu), who is quick to remind anyone within hearing distance that she was Miss Ghana of 1966. Now her job is to find a girl who can seriously compete in a beauty pageant that could put Ghana “on the map.” Her priority quickly becomes clear: Find a light-skinned girl who can effectively compete with models from Europe, North America, Asia, et al.
Most of the girls lack either the physical beauty or the talent to realistically have a shot, leaving Paulina and Ericka as the primary candidates. Although equally talented singers, Ericka’s light skin gives her the edge because Eloise believes that’s what it takes to stand out in a contest based on Eurocentric beauty standards.
Bioh’s acerbic sense of humor is potent, but “School Girls” also happens to be a fundamentally serious play. The playwright covers a wide range of profound issues affecting adolescents, including (but not restricted to) self-loathing, competitive delusions and the human tendency to treat the people who could be friends and supporters with grievance-fueled hostility. That’s why this play packs an emotional punch. An ultimate heart-to-heart between Paulina and Ericka, in which each girl reveals harsh truths about her family and upbringing, is emotionally powerful and shows us where Bioh was headed all along.
The play is one thing, but making it breathe is another. This uniformly strong cast does that, thanks in part to impressive performances by Woods and Walker. But everyone turns in strong work: Yetunde Felix-Ukwu as Ama; Allison S. Jones as Gifty; Bree Patterson as Mercy and Shon Ruffin as Nana bring a diversity of personalities and unfailing comic timing. Amber McKinnon as Headmistress Francis delivers an unforced performance of quiet authority, registering maternal concern and occasional exasperation. And Anyanwu, whose charisma is palpable, has fun as the vain, unethical Eloise.
The design team — Brittany Vasta (scenic), Dominique Fawn Hill (costumes), Alan C. Edwards (lighting), Charelle D. Guyton (hair and wigs) and Lana Palmer (sound) — contribute to an elegantly realized production in which every detail counts.
One way to judge a play is how much you reflect on it in the days after you see it. This is one I couldn’t stop thinking about.
“School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play” runs through March 17 at Copaken Stage on 13th Street between Main and Walnut. Call 816-235-2700 or visit https://kcrep.org.