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Meet Jennifer Leigh Warren of American Stage’s ‘African Mean Girls Play’

Bill DeYoung

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Phyllis Yvonne Stickney, left, and Jennifer Leigh Warren are in the cast of "School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play," opening Feb. 2 at American Stage. Photo: Jarrett Haas.

It’s 1986 in the West African country of Ghana, and the girls at the Aburi boarding school are abuzz about the upcoming Miss Ghana pageant.

That’s the premise for the show opening Feb. 2 at American Stage, playwright Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play.

Any resemblance to the 2004 comedy film Mean Girls is purely intentional; the students at this all-girls Ghanian school are in it to win it, regardless of who gets stepped on. “I think it’s pretty clear that teenage bullies are universal,” Bioh told an interviewer, adding that she based a lot of the girls’ interactions on her own experiences at boarding school.

Bioh also explained she parroted the title of Mean Girls to “contextualize” he play.

Mission accomplished. But School Girls explores a different sort of teenage bullying – because the “new girl” at Aburi is half white, will she win the title over her darker-skinned classmates? It explores beauty standards, both African and American, and the damaging effects of colorism.

The dialogue is catty, bitchy, funny … and goes beyond the skin-deep.

Jennifer Leigh Warren

Los Angeles-based actress Jennifer Leigh Warren is in the American Stage cast. “You’ll see the girls being mean, which is what happens all over the world,” she says. “I feel it’s going to be beautiful in a way that people will not be expecting. Visually and also story-wise.”

Warren has an impressive acting and singing resume. On Broadway, she was in the marquee cast of the original Little Shop of Horrors, along with Big River, Marie Christine and others. More recently, she appeared in Fox’s Rent: Live.

The winner of two Broadway World awards (for A Cinderella Christmas and the one-woman tour de force Diamonds Are Forever: The Songs of Dame Shirley Bassey), Warren plays one of two adults in School Girls.

“I play Miss Eloise Amponsah. She’s a recruiter for the Miss Ghana pageant, and she’s been away from Ghana for 10 years.”

Eloise, a alumnus of the school, comes back with different standards about the definition of beauty. One of her classmates is now Headmistress Francis, the exasperated school disciplinarian (she’s played by stage, film and TV veteran Phyllis Yvonne Stickney).

The real stars, according to Warren, are the young performers who play the school girls.

“It’s so interesting for me, being a ‘seasoned performer,’ to work with these young artists that are just starting out,” she explains. “These beautiful young ladies. Some are from New York, are some are your local talent here. Each one is such a gem! I just look at them and I smile. Off stage and onstage, they’re just beautiful people.”

Warren was specifically recruited for the role of Eloise. “I am here because of Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, the new artistic director for American Stage,” she says. “I’m being reunited with him. Whenever he calls me to do a project, we find a way to work it out. I always know that I’m going to be challenged and I’m going to be exhilarated at the same time. When Rajendra calls, it’s something special.

“He cast me as both Evilline and Addapearl in the same production of The Wiz. And I was so exhausted! But the experience was something I will treasure forever.”

She expects the same results with the young cast members of School Girls – Jada Austin, Massiel Evans, Siobhan Marie Hunter, Aguel Lual, Ivy Sunflower and Phineas Slaton.

“I’m just amazed at the work that they have done,” Warren says. “But Rajendra does that. He is really good at letting people feel safe in the rehearsal room. He’s not a tyrant. It’s a real collaboration, yet he’s directing us and leading us.”

Tickets for School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play are available now at americanstage.org.

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