There’s a scene in American Stage’s production of “School Girls: Or, The African Mean Girls Play” in which every cast member participates, one way or another, in the performance of a Whitney Houston classic. The scene is too crucial to spoil here, but what I will say is that it’s an encapsulation of all the strange and potentially incongruous elements of the 2018 script by Jocelyn Bioh. The characters whip back and forth between sly and sweet, sassy and sad, with moments of broad physical comedy and hard-to-stomach nastiness sometimes in the space of just a few minutes. Taking all this into account along with the fact that the action takes place in mid-1980s Ghana, it’s an intriguing choice director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj has made for St. Pete.
Unfolding in the cafeteria of an exclusive girls’ boarding school over the course of a school year, “School Girls” is an ensemble piece and the all-female cast shows up strong, especially impressive considering the majority of the actresses are young enough – some in or just out of college – to convincingly play teens. Phyllis Yvonne Stickney and Jennifer Leigh Warren are the sole adults on stage; Stickney as the school’s headmistress and Warren as her former classmate and past-her-prime pageant queen. Bringing gravitas and very different life experiences to the proceedings, each has a different idea about how best to guide the students. But Aguel Lual as Paulina , the reigning queen bee who has her sights on the Miss Universe pageant and seems a shoo-in until a new student unexpectedly changes the game, anchors the story.
In her first moments on stage, Paulina is humorously despicable: a narcissist who’s passive-aggressively unkind and cringey in a way most of us can chuckle at uncomfortably because we’ve all known a Paulina at some point in our lives. But this girl is no joke, and when her behavior lurches into viciousness and cruelty there’s a real possibility the audience could dismiss her halfway through the play as, well, just some mean girl. Lual knows there’s more there though, and the play is better for it. Her performance as Paulina zeros in on what makes “School Girls” such an engrossing piece and a refreshing choice for St. Pete: Teenage girls around the globe are surprisingly similar in a lot of ways, but geography and time can make for some striking differences as well.
“School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play” American Stage, 163 3rd St. N., St. Petersburg. Through Feb. 27: Wed.-Thurs., 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; and Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m. $47-57. 727-823-7529; americanstage.org.