BWW Review: AKEELAH AND THE BEE at Children's Theatre
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure!" Marrianne Williamson
This past weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing Akeelah and the Bee, at Children's Theatre of Charlotte. What a lovely way to usher in the month of February, which is nationally recognized as Black History Month.
Based on the 2006 original screenplay/movie by Doug Atchison and starring Keke Palmer as Akeelah, Angela Bassett as Akeelah's mother, and Laurence Fishburne as her spelling bee coach, Akeelah and the Bee is a family-fun production that highlights an 11-year old African-American girl's journey of surviving the inner-city challenges of the Chicago projects to her acrimonious success as a finalist/winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The stage adaptation remained true to the movie's original theme about overcoming obstacles (poverty, bullying, inner-city woes such as shooting and drugs, racial and societal stereotypes, etc.), while stressing the importance of the strong community ties and love that undergird Akeelah's rise to success. I love the message of human and educational equality this production affirms, especially for children. My takeaway was "Just because someone comes from a specific background or racial culture doesn't mean he/she lacks intelligence of the ability to succeed as others!"
As a member of Charlotte's theater community, it was a pleasure to see some of our finest theatrical professionals (some who are educators, too) in this stage adaptation of Akeelah. It is directed by Tony-Award winning theatrical instructor, Corey Mitchell of Northwest School of the Arts. Dr. Corlis Hayes, Actress/Communications Instructor at Central Piedmont Community College, portrays the role of Ruth, an additional character in the stage adaptation that is not included in the movie. Ruth's opening rendition of the 'high-energy' hymnal, This Little Light Of Mine, gave a semblance of the spiritual roots that is a staple in the African-American community. Her character made me reminisce of my childhood neighborhood in Texas and the close-knit relationship that our community had. Many cultures may have had an "Aunt Ruth" who invited us in her house for warm cookies and cold milk after school, infused with words of wisdom for our personal development.
Kiara Casseus, a sophomore at Northwest School of the Arts, is making her acting debut at Children's Theatre, in the lead role of Akeelah Anderson. Kiara equally matches the brilliance, on-stage presence, and believable characterization that the actress, Keke Palmer, showcased in the movie version. I certainly see a star on the rise. Possessing the ability to memorize all those spelling words is an impressive feat in itself. I especially loved the surrogate father/daughter relationship that developed between Akeelah and her spelling bee coach, Dr. Larrabee (Tony King). Both characters are seemingly dealing with the loss of loved ones...Akeelah with the loss of her father who was killed and Dr. Larrabee appeared to be struggling with the loss of a daughter, Denise. They form a bond with each other that filled the void of their painful losses. Though Dr. Larrabee's original approach to Akeelah appeared stoic and seemed to lack wisdom/empathy; the time spent coaching Akeelah began to melt his stony disposition to reveal his fatherly compassion.
Lakeetha Blakeney, portrays Akeelah's mother, Gail Anderson. In addition to being an acclaimed actress, Lakeetha is an artistic director, playwright, and teaching artist. She does an excellent job of illuminating the struggles a widowed mother experiences as the sole provider for her children while trying to keep them safe and protected from the deadly woes of the inner-city. I had the opportunity to speak to Lakeetha and asked her about what this experience and what working with this cast meant to her. "Being a part of Akeelah and the Bee reminded me of my love for acting. Acting is my first love. After seeing the movie, I knew that I wanted to play the role of Gail. I love Angela Bassett! I channeled my own mother, who also was a single mother, as part of my character development. I wanted to honor all mothers who went above and beyond the call of duty. I envisioned Gail working extra shifts, while trying to prevent her son from slipping. I could also relate to Akeelah being a latchkey kid left under the supervision of her older brother, Reggie (Kevin Aoussou). I just love this cast! The kids are amazing. They are sweet, respectful, focused and very professional. I enjoyed working with the director, Corey Mitchell. As a teacher of the Arts, I've had several encounters with him, but never worked with him as an actress. He is absolutely terrific."
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the rapidly-changing set design by Anita Tripathi. Starting with the walk-up multiplex tenement that signified the close proximity of the Chicago projects, that later translated to the eloquently-decorated gated home of Dr. Larrabee, and finally to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, each design enhanced the storyline and catapulted the imagination to that particular setting and time.
I highly recommend Akeelah And The Bee for a fun-filled family outing! There is a fundamental lesson to be gained by all, and it is entertaining and educational.
*Akeelah And The Bee runs through February 16, at Children's Theatre, located in ImaginOn, 300 E. Seventh Street, Charlotte, NC. For more information visit website http://www.ctcharlotte.org.