“Akeelah and the Bee” shines at Arena Stage

By Hannah Lang
For Unwind magazine

May I have the definition please? And while we’re at it, a ticket to the next show?

“Akeelah and the Bee” captured the hearts and the brains of many in 2006 when the movie about a young girl from inner-city Los Angeles who found herself at the Scripps National Spelling Bee premiered across the country.

Nine years later, Akeelah is back in D.C. – but this time, it’s not for a spelling bee.

Johannah Easley as Akeelah in Children’s Theatre Company’s Akeelah and the Bee at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater November 13-December 27, 2015. Photo by Dan Norman.
Johannah Easley as Akeelah in Children’s Theatre Company’s Akeelah and the Bee at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater November 13-December 27, 2015. Photo by Dan Norman.

The Children’s Theatre Company’s “Akeelah and the Bee” has traveled to the District after a run in Minneapolis to perform at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. The show is a collaboration between playwright Cheryl L. West and director Charles Randolph-Wright.

“Akeelah and the Bee” follows an 11-year-old girl from the Chicago projects who is encouraged to participate the school spelling bee. As she advances, the community rallies around her and helps coach her for the Scripps National Spelling Bee, where she must face experienced opponents.

“To watch these young characters – black, Asian, Latino and white – come together in this journey gives me hope,” Randolph-Wright said. “At such a depressing time in our country where no one seems to be listening to each other, Akeelah steps up to the microphone and through spelling, forces us to realize that we far more in common than we have that is dissimilar. It gives me tremendous pride to direct such an essential story.”

Akeelah steps up to the microphone not only to spell difficult words, but also to discuss difficult issues. The script was modernized to tell the story as it takes place in 2015, swapping topics with the 2006 movie to make the play more current.

Akeelah has to face parents calling her spelling bee success a result of affirmative action and deals with the influence a neighborhood gang has on her brother.

While the film approached Akeelah’s obstacles with a dramatic and emotional framework, the play used comedy and sharp characters to enforce its message of respect and hard work.

Batty Ruth and Drunk Willie were two original characters featured in the play that provided a colorful snapshot of Akeelah’s community, while also providing some of the play’s most clever lines. The union of community members was an important factor in the movie, and translated well onto the stage through the addition of these roles.

Johannah Easley’s character of Akeelah was a refreshing contrast to the Keke Palmer version from the movie. While Palmer’s demeanor was serious and at times stubborn, Easley incorporated popular black culture and slang into her lighthearted portrayal of Akeelah. The sass and strong personality she exuded accented the poignant script and engaged the audience.

Akeelah’s brother Reggie was another original character that guided Akeelah and further demonstrated the challenges that inner-city children face. One particular heartbreaking moment saw Reggie arrested after he robbed a man so he could buy Akeelah new clothes to wear at the Spelling Bee. Moments like helped to create the stellar cast of dynamic characters.

The effort that the actors and creative team put into the production is almost tangible. The set is a beautifully constructed series of rotating wooden pieces that seamlessly transitioned from scene to scene, whether that be Akeelah’s home, a library, or the National Spelling Bee itself.

“When Charles Randolph-Wright told me he was working with Cheryl L. West on an adaptation of the beautiful film ‘Akeelah and the Bee’, I knew it was too good to pass up,” Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith said. “Cheryl is one of Arena’s most-produced playwrights, and it’s easy to see why. In Charles and Cheryl’s hands, Akeelah’s story will inspire a whole new audience.”

“Akeelah and the Bee” will be performed at Arena Stage until December 27. Tickets range from $40 – $90 and may be purchased at http://www.arenastage.org.


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