Irena Fletcher (center) and the other young cast members of Akeelah and the Bee. Image courtesy of Faithworks Studios.
Akeelah & the Bee: New Stage Play
By Cheryl L. West
Directed by Frances Lewis
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2016 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Akeelah and the Bee is a play that targets young audiences, but it is adapted from the 2006 movie written and directed by Doug Atchinson. I have always been an admirer of the film, a genuinely inspiring story that never patronizes. The story of the 12-year old African American girl who grudgingly (at first) competes in spelling bees up to the national level grounds itself against sentimentality with solidly constructed relationships that skirt cliché but rise above through the playing.
This stage version relocates the story from East Los Angeles to the Southside of Chicago. It would seem that the only reason for this change is to more easily consolidate the important role that Akeelah’s neighbors play in her training for the national spelling bee by placing her family in a housing complex. There is also some fairly logical consolidation of characters: Akeelah’s three siblings become just the one brother who is both supportive and also tempted into trouble with the police by less savory residents in the neighborhood. Her mother (Lydia Kennebrew) also seems somewhat softened onstage, and two new additions, Batty Ruth (Lauren White) and Drunk Willie (Troy Bell) serve as extended family and manage to interject a good deal of humor.
But the most important relationship is between Akeelah (Irena Fletcher) and Dr. Larabee (Alphaeus Green, Jr.), a somewhat reclusive academic who becomes Akeelah’s coach. Akeelah’s father is deceased, and Larabee carries his own secret grief. The symmetry of that detail is perhaps a bit too tidy, but the performances are solid and true enough to give sufficient weight to this most crucial dynamic.
Jayla Lock is very good as Georgia, Akeelah’s best friend, as is Alex Hartz as new spelling bee friend Javier and Ethan Young as Dylan, her nemesis. This production is a part of an education initiative for Rush Trowell and his Faithworks Studios, and as such it tends to play a bit more as well meaning than professional, placing experienced actors such as Ms. White and Mr. Green alongside kids who are perhaps doing their first work onstage. Akeelah is an ideal piece of material for this mission, although, being a big fan of the movie, I cannot help but mourn for the sacrifice of the subtler aspects of that telling. This Akeelah couches its message in slightly more emphatic quotation marks, simplifying it some for the demands of the stage.
The particulars of director Frances Lewis’ production are in need of a few more days of rehearsal, with a handful of confusing lighting cues on opening night and a couple of times when stage pieces appeared to be left behind. Act one flowed reasonably well, but the first half of act two lost its way for a bit, with some slack in the pacing due to dropped cues. The limited budget is evident in painted flats and modest set pieces, but theatre doesn’t require lush production values when there is a good story to tell. Lewis makes good use of the space by placing her actors in the front row as observers of the various bees, most effectively during the climactic competition set in Washington, D.C., when she fills it with all but a few of the cast. Their vivid and emotional reactions to the action helped build tension and lend immediacy to the ending.
Overall, Akeelah and the Bee has its heart in the right place, and mostly succeeds in realizing the ambitions of the text to inspire, motivate and celebrate intelligence, academic achievement, and self-empowerment. The play makes a rather clunky and too-obvious use of a quote that is key to the story by tacking it on as a post-script in a rushed delivery, yet it sums up the whole point of the story:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be?”
― Marianne Williamson
Akeelah and the Bee has alternate casts for its student roles, so some actors listed here do not appear in all performances.
Akeelah & the Bee: New Stage Play
Thursday, August 25th at 7:30PM
Friday, August 26th at 7:30PM
Saturday, August 27th at 2:00PM
Saturday, August 27th at 7:30PM
Sunday, August 28th at 2:00PM
Sunday, August 28th at 7:30PM
General Admission; $20
Groups (10+): $18
Ticket Hotline: 502.414.4225
Rush Trowel & Faith Works Studios
Ursuline Arts Center
3105 Lexington Road
Louisville, KY 402
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of PUBLIC on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.