Akeelah and the Bee

An 11-year-old girl aims to conquer the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Johannah Easley, Sean Phinney, Leo James, Molly Yeselson, and Ana Christine Evans in Children's Theatre Company's Akeelah and the Bee, directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, at Arena Stage.
Johannah Easley, Sean Phinney, Leo James, Molly Yeselson, and Ana Christine Evans in Children’s Theatre Company’s Akeelah and the Bee, directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, at Arena Stage.
(© Dan Norman)

The pairing of spelling and theater has been done to great comic success already with the wonderful 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Luckily, that didn't preclude playwright Cheryl L. West from adapting the 2006 feel-good movie Akeelah and the Bee for the stage, as the world premiere at Arena Stage is I-N-C-R-E-D-I-B-L-E.

Much like the movie, the play follows Akeelah, an 11-year-old urban girl struggling with the unfair obstacles that fate has thrown her way and the unexpected journey she takes all the way from the Chicago projects to the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. West captures all the heart of Doug Atchison's original script, but adds even deeper layers of trust and devotion.

Playing the title role, Johannah Easley is exceptional. The young actress carries the weight of the show on her shoulders with grace, vulnerability, and humor. This range is particularly evident in the show's opening scene, when, as Akeelah prays to her late father, gunshots ring out and interrupt her conversation. In this moment, we witness Easley go from sorrow to hope to desperation — and it's an exhilarating transformation.

James A. Williams is a triumph as Dr. Larabee, Akeelah's reluctant tutor, who forms a bond with the spelling prodigy. Easley's charm, combined with Williams' nuanced portrayal, makes every scene the two share a mixture of somberness and joy. Aimee K. Bryant also creates great chemistry with Easley as Akeelah's mom, who tries to keep reality in her life without ruining her dream. One heartrending conversation they share about Akeelah's place in the world echoes some of the conflicts we face in society today.

Outside of the principles, the supporting characters could use some fleshing out, as their roles are exaggerated to the point of buffoonery and cliché. There's the neighborhood drunk, the bat-wielding church lady, the bullying classmate, and the snorting speller. Yes, humor in this show is important, but it doesn't need to be forced, and sometimes West's script makes it feel that way.

Director Charles Randolph-Wright keeps the spelling bee light and fun, and makes Akeelah's journey interesting by not constraining Easley and her energy. Alexander V. Nichols's innovative set transforms four spinning towers into apartments and a library, with a platform utilized for the more emotional family talks that adds depth and resonance to the dialogue.

Akeelah and the Bee builds on the underdog story of the movie, adding scenes in which she learns to appreciate her spelling gift and resist the naysayers along the way. The play is filled with tenderness, hope, and humor. It has a lot to say about the world, growing up, and triumphing over the obstacles that get in your way.

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