Those of us waiting anxiously for new work from playwright by Cheryl L. West can rest easy—she’s still got it and Akeelah and the Bee is worth the wait. Her adaptation of the screenplay by Doug Atchison soars with energy and possibility.
The unspoken question “What if?” is answered with “Why Not!” in this tale of a Southside girl from the streets of Chicago’s high rise tenement complexes making her way through the grueling Scripps National Spelling Bee. Whether or not you’ve seen the movie, read the book, or are discovering Akeelah for the first time, the stage play unfolds with a tender universal appeal.
Johannah Easley as Akeelah is a wonder to behold and a treat to watch. She exudes vulnerability in layers and peels them away like a pro. In the opening scene, she’s on her knees in nightly prayers trying to connect spiritually with her recently deceased Dad when gunshots ring out and she ducks for cover. This is the world and reality for Akeelah who tackles the obstacles with grit and a precious grin.
Once she discovers her uncanny ability to spell – a love of words she shared with her father – she begins the journey of self-discovery, awareness, respect, and fortitude, through words.
The beauty of the script is witnessing how Akeelah learns to recognize and appreciate her talent, and to watch her resistance and denial, then eventual acceptance and growth. She’s teased unmercifully for being smart in school and could easily tuck into a shell and disappear. She considers that possibility, but instead, slowly blossoms as she discovers the power of words and their ancient roots—they nourish her as she pats out the spelling in rhythm, even jumping rope to organize the letters in her head.
It’s also thrilling to bask in the artistry of such a seasoned performer as Milton Craig Nealy who plays Drunk Willie and the Principal. Nealy hits just the right tone as the somewhat tipsy building manager with a story tucked beneath his own façade. His counterpart, Greta Oglesby as Batty Ruth, the loving church choir neighbor lady is also fun to watch, and I was thankful that she got a tiny opportunity to break out of her constricting role and enjoy a fun moment as a vocal instructor. Both of them are seasoned performers with pedigrees in the arts that come through with authenticity laced with grace. They also serve as an effective counterpoint to balance the rambunctious “youngsters” in the show.
While terrific actor James W. Williams, who plays Akeelah’s spelling coach Dr. Larabee, originated roles on Broadway, he is surprisingly less facile in expressing the depth and layers that Easley does effortlessly. His character witnesses Akeelah’s talent and encourages her development but he’s so distant that it’s hard to believe how the two intertwine in sharing and relating to each other, especially when they buck heads in frustration. Yes, Dr. Larabee has a back-story that explains his chilly veneer, and it’s unfair to compare Williams with Lawrence Fishburne’s performance in the movie. Still, I would like to have felt some warmth in his portrayal beneath the wounded spirit.
Direction by Charles Randolph-Wright keeps the energy flowing, and he has full command of the flyy girrl mannerisms of Akeelah and her fun bunch. While the first Act sets up the characters with the broad strokes of a sit com, the excitement of the Bee thrusts the story forward more effectively in Act 2. And yes, spelling e-x-c-r-u-c-i-a-t-i-n-g-l-y long words can be thrilling when the scene is crafted with depth and care, and that’s just what happens here. Playwright West can plumb the depths of characters like a zealot, as witnessed in her magnificent Jar the Floor that still makes me tingle. Still, the original story can only deliver so much, so she works with what she’s got and director Randolph-Wright does the rest for a rousing finale.
With more character-depth development, the piece wouldn’t feel so contrived. For example, a bullying sassy classmate Rhonda who would routinely rough up Akeelah and take her lunch is played with fab swagger by Shavunda Horsley. But there’s no back-story to help accept how Rhonda transitions from berating Akeelah for “acting white,” to rallying to help her win the coveted Bee. Same thing with the ominous JT played menacingly by Darius Dotch, who represents the dangers of the streets, yet who also suddenly flips out spelling cards to help her—it’s a sweet though abrupt touch.
Nathan Barlow as Akeelah’s brother Reggie finds a way to extend beyond stock and relays a true sense of care for his sister, while trying to navigate his own way through the dangerous streets. The other ensemble characters are just plain fun to watch with Zaria Graham as best friend Georgia, and Leo James and Ana Christine Evans as Javier and Trish who befriend Akeelah and ease her into the posh upscale neighborhood study circle. Aimee K. Bryant exudes care and devotion as the mom struggling to make ends meet while reeling and still grief-stricken from the family loss.
AKEELAH AND THE BEE
November 13 – December 27
Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
Washington, DC 20024
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Tickets: $40 – $90
Even Dylan Chiu, played by Sean Phinney, eventually sheds his tough-as-nails bravado when we see how he’s pushed to the max by an unrelenting Dad, a commanding performance in a one-note bit part by Tony Nam. And yes, there are inherent cultural stereotypes in the passages, but the magic of the message that we can all care for each other despite our differences helps ease the discomfort. And Lord knows we can all use some of that healing around now.
Some of the healing comes from the contemporary top ten hits that blast from the opening to the victorious strut out the door keeping the throbbing beat funky fresh — Uptown funk you up fo’ real. (Don’t’ believe me, just watch!)
The set design by Alexander V. Nichols, consists of four gigantic walk-ups, windows to lean out of like a tenement, and a sturdy platform for touching family scenes. The structures can also depict different images, the professor’s study lined with books, and even serve as screens for projections with fascinating flexibility.
Akeelah is more than a feel-good show—with a great cast, direction, and stellar production design, it’s got depth, message and enough heart to keep the dancing in the aisle flowing out the door and actually imbedded in our lives.
Akeelah and the Bee by Cheryl L. West . Based on the original screenplay by Doug Atchison . Director: Charles Randolph-Wright . Featuring Nathan Barlow, Aimee K. Bryant, Darius Dotch, Johannah Easley, Ana Christine Evans, Zaria Graham, Shavunda Horsley, Leo James, Tony Nam, Milton Craig Nealy, Greta Oglesby, Sean Phinney, James A. Williams, Molly Yeselson. Scenic Design: Alexander V. Nichols . Costume Design: Jessica Jahn . Lighting Design: Michael Gilliam . Sound Design: Sten Severson . Composer: Victor Zupanc . Dramaturg: Elissa Adams . Stage Manager: Chris Schweiger . Produced by Children’s Theatre Company . Presented by Arena Stage . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.