Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
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.