One of my favorite moments of Akeelah and the Bee at the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater was observing three kids seated in front of me playing scrabble on their devices. The play’s powerful message had taken hold of young minds by intermission.
Based on the beloved film, Akeelah and the Bee tells the story of an independent 11-year-old girl whose grit and acumen might take her all the way from the Chicago projects to the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The remarkable Johannah Easley debuts at Arena as Akeelah. Alternately tough and soft, she barges into the always unfamiliar and at times unwelcoming hive of competitive spelling.
Playwright Cheryl L. West (Pullman Porter Blues) and director Charles Randolph-Wright (Ruined) have created an adaptation that is alternately warm and foreboding, reflecting the realities of ambition, poverty, loss, and love. The characters’ passion for language is infectious, and pulls the audience to the edge of their seats as young scholars grapple to spell arcane four syllable words. At its heart, the play is about family dynamics, the daily grind interrupted by tenderness, no matter your station. Tears will be jerked but the script is as realistic as it can be and the play never strays into saccharin.
Scenic Director Alexander V. Nichols’s sets revolve much like Akeelah’s world, spinning between the realities of a treacherous Chicago slum, an intellectually snobby coach, and the elite universe of competitive spelling. Likewise each character evolves. Like all the best scripts, the whole cast changes each other, as opposed to one character doing all the changing. As Akeelah pulls a Pygmalion, her coach Dr. Larabee (played by James A. Williams) goes from quoting Aristotle to Beyonce.
The performances were impressive on a technical level. Normally, an actor can improvise with little notice. But you can’t flub spelling words like staphylococci, intussusception, and objurgatory. Just as the portrayed competitors demand of themselves, Akeelah’s script demands perfection. And the actors deliver.
My son likes to remind me that a review should say one bad thing and two good things. But truthfully, I don’t have one bad thing to say about Arena’s Akeelah and the Bee, except maybe to wish it was longer. Sometimes you simply want to go to a show and feel good. Akeelah and the Bee is that show, perfect for the holidays. E-N-J-O-Y.
Akeelah and the Bee is playing at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater from Nov. 13 through Dec. 27, 2015 (1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington DC 20024). Running time: two hours with one fifteen minute intermission. For information or tickets call 202-488-3300 or click here.
Photo credit Dan Norman