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Akeelah and the Bee
Arena Stage
Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule

Also see Susan's reviews of Pericles, Cinderella, Guys and Dolls and Oliver!

Johannah Easley and James A. Williams
Photo by Dan Norman
Akeelah and the Bee, now in the Kreeger Theater at Washington's Arena Stage, is a crowd pleaser with a central performance by Johannah Easley so incandescent that it allows the moments of manipulation to skim by.

Playwright Cheryl W. West closely follows Doug Atchison's screenplay for the 2006 movie of the same title. Akeelah Anderson, age 11, is growing up on Chicago's South Side. Her father was killed the previous year by a robber and her mother (Aimee K. Bryant), a nurse's aide, works long hours to support the girl and her older brother (Nathan Barlow), himself the father of a baby girl and unable to find a legitimate job.

Fortuitously, Akeelah's late father had instilled in her a love of words, making a game out of spelling. She worries that her classmates will laugh at her when her middle school principal persuades her to participate in a spelling bee, but she has the skills.

Akeelah's journey takes her to Dr. Joshua Larabee (James A. Williams), a prickly English professor who becomes her spelling coach, and into the world of competitive spellers from wealthier schools. Affable Javier Mendez (Leo James) is welcoming but Dylan Chiu (Sean Phinney), who has competed in the national bee, treats her with contempt.

A major part of Akeelah's story, emphasized through Charles Randolph-Wright's direction, is the importance of a supportive community for success in any endeavor. As Akeelah progresses from one spelling bee to the next, she gains support from "lovable neighborhood characters," including a busybody church lady who loves to sing (Greta Oglesby), an inebriated handyman (Milton Craig Nealy), and an aspiring tough guy with a heart of gold (Darius Dotch).

This production began at Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis, and the cast members know and understand each other from long practice. But while Bryant is believably frustrated with her life and Williams slowly reveals the wounded heart behind his outward rigidity, Easley carries the show with truth, conviction, and indomitable spirit.

The modular scenic design by Alexander V. Nichols consists of several towers that can spin, latch onto each other, and form settings with varying amounts of detail.

Arena Stage
Akeelah and the Bee
Children's Theatre Company's production
November 13th - December 27th
Adapted for the stage by Cheryl L. West
Based on the original screenplay by Doug Atchison
Akeelah Anderson: Johannah Easley
Gail Anderson: Aimee K. Bryant
Reggie Anderson: Nathan Barlow
Georgia: Zaria Graham
Batty Ruth: Greta Oglesby
Drunk Willie/Principal Welch: Milton Craig Nealy
Izzy/Snorting Girl/Air-Speller Girl: Molly Yeselson
JT/Judge/TV Announcer: Darius Dotch
Rhonda/Fay-Fay Foxy/Pronouncer: Shavunda Horsley
Javier Mendez/Chucky: Leo James
Dr. Joshua Larabee: James A. Williams
Dylan Chiu: Sean Phinney
Trish/Horse Girl/Mohawk Girl: Ana Christine Evans Mr. Chiu/Pronouncer/Judge: Tony Nam
Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright
Kreeger Theater, Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, Sixth and Maine avenues SW
Washington, DC
Ticket Information: 202-488-3300 or

-- Susan Berlin

Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.

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