BWW Review: AKEELAH AND THE BEE at Open Stage Of Harrisburg

BWW Review: AKEELAH AND THE BEE at Open Stage Of Harrisburg

Akeelah and the Bee was first seen on the big screen in 2006. Written and directed by Doug Atchison, the film follows the journey of a young girl, Akeelah Anderson, who overcomes a variety of challenges to participate in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The film was adapted for the stage by playwright Cheryl West and first appeared on stage in 2015. This inspiring, family-friendly show is directed by Sharia Benn and Stuart Landon and produced in partnership with Sankofa African American Theatre Company at Open Stage Harrisburg. In a fitting introduction not only to Sankofa African American Theatre Company but also to Akeelah and the Bee, Sharia Benn stated that our community, our nation, and our world need opportunities like the ones presented by theatre to "understand that even though we are different, we are so much the same."

From the very first scene, Open Stage Harrisburg and Sankofa's production of Akeelah and the Bee catches the audience's attention. The video images showing the young girl playing with her father, Akeelah waking up in a panic at the sound of gunshots, and her mother rushing into her room to protect and comfort her immediately set the stage for an emotional story of love triumphing over loss and fear. Megan Mwaura's Akeelah is excellently acted. The role is not an easy one, requiring a huge range of emotions, both overt and subtle, but Mwaura, appearing for the first time on the Open Stage Harrisburg stage, pulls it off wonderfully.

While there were some issues with volume in the first couple scenes, once the nerves dissipated and the actors really got things underway, these issues disappeared for the most part. Jovoni Patrice Lewis, portraying Akeelah's mother Gail sets the tone for the family relationships that are such a huge part of this show. From the start the audience sees a woman who has sacrificed much for her family, who is hard-working and who feels deeply. Lewis's Gail evokes such a sense of disappointment and concern in her scenes with Andre Tucker, who plays her son Reggie, that the audience can't help but want to see him turn things around if only for his mother's sake.

Betty Joyner and Aaron Bomar are perfect in their roles of Ruth and Willie. Joyner is a joy to watch on stage, and her acapella vocals are amazing. When the show first starts, the audience expects a rather cliché portrayal of a drunk landlord and the neighbor lady. However, these two characters develop beautifully and subtly as the play progresses, and Joyner and Bomar handle their characters with great depth and skill. Their artistry brings the complex nature of human relationships-of loss, love, forgiveness, and faith-to life on the stage.

Relationships are really the heart and sole of this production, and the way they were directed and acted completely makes up for any short-comings, of which there were very few. The relationships between Akeelah and her family, between the neighbors, between, Akeelah and her classmates, between Akeelah and her mentor Dr. Larabee, and between Akeelah and her fellow competitors feel real. When the audience sees Reggie, played by Andre Tucker, interacting with Akeelah, played by Megan Mwaura, they see a genuine brother-sister relationship. Andre Tucker's performance in the scene where he stops by to check out Dr. Larabee is completely endearing.

One of the special relationships portrayed in the show is between Akeelah and her teacher Dr. Larabee. Among the many highlights in the show are the scenes between Megan Mwaura as Akeelah and Eric L. Jackson, Sr. as Dr. Larabee. The scene when Akeelah opens up to Dr. Larabee and tries to talk to him about her dad only to have him distance himself from her is heartbreaking and beautiful. Watching Jackson's Dr. Larabee is sure to remind many audience members of those teachers in their lives who taught them about more than just what was in the syllabus-those teachers who taught us how to think and how to find our confidence, or, as Dr. Larabee says, "to stand there in your power."

This production would not be what it is without the equally solid performances of the actors playing Akeelah's peers. When Rhonda, played by Niara Johnson first comes out onto the stage, her attitude and taunting of Akeelah take the audience right back to their school days dealing with all of the awkwardness and angst of being teenagers. Blake Mallah's Georgia is delightful, making everyone in the audience wish she were their best friend.

One of the surprising aspects of the show is the fact that Akeelah actually finds acceptance, friendship and support among her fellow competitors. Even though they are competing against one another, they have a special bond because of their love for spelling. Ben Stoesz, who portrays Javier, exemplifies what our relationships can be like if we can get past our differences to see the person standing right in front of us. Stoesz's Javier has a wonderful sort of "aw shucks" humility and joviality.

The way in which they used the stage was incredible as well. The only "scene changes" involved moving a microphone and some chairs around occasionally, but the audience had no doubt about where they were-from Akeelah's home to the street outside her home to her school to the national spelling bee and more. One of my favorite scenes in terms of how they made the audience visualize the space is the first time the stage becomes the street outside Akeelah's house. Miss Ruth singing on the front stoop, the landlord Willie with his boombox and tools, and the students heading to school (even taking selfies), all worked together perfectly to make the audience feel like they were on the sidewalk in a city neighborhood.

In the final scene at the National Spelling Bee, the acting and staging came together to make the audience truly feel like they were at a spelling bee. Each time another word was spelled correctly, the audience was compelled to clap and cheer, and when Javier misspells his final word, there were audible groans. In these moments the cast, crew, and directors succeeded in making the audience forget that they were sitting in an auditorium watching a play.

To mention every moment that shone in this production would take as long to read as it would to see the show. It is well worth the time to take in this production of Akeelah and the Bee produced by Open Stage Harrisburg and Sankofa African American Theatre Company, so get your t-i-c-k-e-t-s to see Akeelah and the Bee through March 11th at www.openstagehbg.com. (Photo credit: Haley Harned)

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From This Author Andrea Stephenson

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