Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Akeelah and the Bee
Children's Theatre Company

Also see Arty's review of Annapurna

Johannah Easley and James A. Williams
Akeelah and the Bee, the brand new play by Cheryl L. West having its world premiere at the Children's Theatre Company, is as sunny and full of uplift as a big yellow balloon. Based on Doug Atchison's popular 2006 film of the same name, it is a classic story of a deserving young person overcoming the odds to find a way to shine in the world—and in the process lifting up those around her. Given the stream of negative images of inner city life seen on the evening news, Akeelah and the Bee is a welcome portrayal of the resiliency and kindness that are also abundant in those environs.

Akeelah is an 11-year-old African-American girl living on Chicago's South Side. Last year her beloved father was killed, an innocent victim of gunfire on the street; her brother Reggie is an unemployed high school dropout who divides his time between drug-dealing friends and his infant son; her mother Gail still grieves for her husband, works long hours for too little pay as a nursing aide, and is too worried about getting Reggie straight to have time left for Akeelah.

With so much stress at home, Akeelah zeroes in on the thing in which she excels—words. Her father instilled in her a love for words, and through this gift Akeelah becomes her middle school's champion speller, enduring the taunts of those who jeer that being smart is uncool. Retired professor Dr. Larabee takes an interest in Akeelah and offers to coach her to compete in the District Spelling Bee, where she places well enough to make it to the state team, putting her in touch with students whose life experience is very different than hers. Her mom is not impressed. The time and energy to support Akeelah's goals, even to understand them, is just more than Gail can muster, and she tells Akeelah to quit the spelling team.

The play gives us representatives of the types of personages that form Akeelah's world. Next door neighbor Betty Ruth is the pious community elder, who busies herself with everybody else's business but has a heart of gold. Drunk Willie is the good-hearted older fellow who lost his life's chances over the bottle. Akeelah's friend Georgia is a homie, loyal but not selfless, while school bully Ratchet Rhonda torments Akeelah. There are types on the state spelling team, too: Dylan, who is hyper-competitive and joyless; Trish, the wide-eyed innocent; and Javier, the clown and peace maker. Though only Akeelah and Dr. Larabee are fleshed out as full characters, by seeing Akeelah in the context of a community, we know more about the challenges and the resources in her life.

Akeelah faces several conflicts. Dr. Larabee is a harsh taskmaster. He tries mightily to resist developing a fondness for the charming girl, but she strives to win him over. He tries to conceal his personal reasons for taking an interest in her, but there are little surprises when his secret comes to light. Akeelah must decide between pursuing her dream and heeding her mother's dictates, a choice she does not take lightly. She also contends with Dylan's superior training and the scorn he openly heaps upon her. In the end, Akeelah's resolve becomes the catalyst that breaks Dr. Larabee's sorrow, Gail's atrophied hopes, and Dylan's torturous ambition. She brings together her fractured community, who join hands to support their daughter, sister, pupil, friend, and neighbor. Though the story's trajectory is not hard to predict, a surprise twist offers a satisfying conclusion.

Children's Theatre Company has given Akeelah and the Bee a sparkling production. Director Charles Randolph-Wright directed Motown The Musical on Broadway, and gives Akeelah a similar sense of cinematic sweep, so that one scene glides into another free of jarring stops and starts in the action.

The cast is strong, without exception. Johannah Easley is pitch perfect as Akeelah, giving her both spunk and sensitivity, deep reserves of strength as well as scars from violent loss and benign neglect. James A. Williams crafts another of his indelible portraits as Dr. Larabee, a man whose pride and dignity almost paralyze his ability to feel. Aimee K. Bryant, in a moving performance as Gail, is persuasively worn down by life. While we know how wrongheaded she is about Akeelah, we also sympathize with her constant exhaustion and fear.

Nathan Barlow presents Reggie as a sweet guy and loving brother, in spite of the many bad choices he makes, so we can believe he is just one good break or strong mentor away from a turnaround. The part of Betty Ruth, the gospel-raising neighbor, is peripheral to the main story, but in the hands of the amazing Greta Oglesby, she becomes essential, summoning the importance of community and the power of communion. Shawn Hamilton provides solid turns as Drunk Willie and the school principal. Zaria Graham as Georgia, Leo James as Javier, Ana Christine Evans as Trish, and Sean Phinney as Dylan all give Akeelah's peers specific personalities and points of view.

The physical production uses vertical towers that resemble the closed-in structures of an urban neighborhood, with the character's living spaces framed within the towers. The towers turn to form Dr. Larabee's library, with each tower a commanding wall of books. As for the spelling bees, each level, from school to district to state, is held before an ever grander curtain, leading up to the National Bee, with a multimedia background wall, including live video cam shots and images that scream "this is the big time!" Costumes, lights and sound—especially the opening salvo of gunfire, and the insistent wails of Reggie's baby—add to the overall high quality of the production.

West has written believable dialogue and placed her characters in situations that ring true. The play opens with Akeelah startled awake by the horrific sound of gunfire on the streets. The unceasing stress Gail faces, the pressure Reggie feels to fit into his scene, despite the clear dangers, and Betty Ruth's turning to a higher power to cope with the mayhem on her streets, all are chiseled from the stone of real life. The spelling competitions are also fraught with tension, but there is a difference: unlike everything else Akeelah faces, in spelling there are definite right and wrong answers. Spelling allows her to get things right and have some control in a world out of control.

There are some contrivances, to be sure. How likely is it that of the final four National Spelling Bee contestants, three would be from the same district in Illinois? How is it possible for a girl Akeelah's age to get from South Side Chicago to a far north suburb (a couple of hours commute time!) for spelling practice without her mother knowing?

Still, one can forgive such lapses in logic, as Akeelah's story is as much fable as it is depiction of reality. All good fables have a moral, and in this case two come to mind: never give up on your dreams, and share success with your community. Those lessons, delightful performances, and a heart-warming story are solid reasons to see Akeelah and the Bee. Not for the youngest children, but for 3rd grade and up, both the entertainment quotient and strong positive messages make it great family fare and a potent launch pad for rich family conversations.

Akeelah and the Bee continues at the Children's Theatre Company through October 11, 2015. 2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN, 55404. Tickets are $10.00 - $58.00. Rush Tickets for unsold seats available two hours before each performance: $15.00. Discounts available for groups of 10 or more. For tickets call 612- 874-0400 or go to Recommended for Grade 3 and up.

Adapted for the Stage by: Cheryl L. West; Based on the Original Screenplay by Doug Atchison; Director: Charles Randolph-Wright; Scenic Design: Alexander V. Nichols; Costume Design: Jessica Jahn; Lighting Design: Michael Gilliam; Composer: Victor Zupanc; Sound Design: Sten Severson; Dramaturg: Elissa Adams; Assistant Director: Jamil Jude; Stage Manager: Chris Schweiger; Assistant Stage Manager: Jenny Brass; Assistant Costume Designer: Sarah Bahr; Stage Management Intern: Topaz Cooks

Cast: Nathan Barlow (Reggie), Aimee K. Bryant (Gail), Darius Dotch (J.T., DJ Rule, Judge, TV Announcer), Johannah Easley (Akeelah), Ana Christine Evans (Trish, Horse Girl, Mohawk Girl), Zaria Graham (Georgia), Shawn Hamilton (Drunk Willie, Principal), Shavunda Horsley (Ratchet Rhonda, Foxy Fay), Leo James (Javier, Chucky), Greta Oglesby (Betty Ruth), Sean Phinney (Dylan), Michael Sung-Ho (Dylan's Dad, Pronouncer), James A. Williams (Dr. Larabee), Molly Yeselson (Izzy, Snorting Girl, Crying Girl)

Photo: Dan Norman

- Arthur Dorman

Also see the season schedule for the Minneapolis - St. Paul region

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