AKEELAH AND THE BEE Stage Adaptation Coming to Arena Stage
Fresh off its world-premiere run in Minneapolis, where Star Tribune declared "Akeelah and the Bee triumphs," Children's Theatre Company's new production about an 11-year-old spelling prodigy comes to Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. The show is adapted for the stage by veteran playwright Cheryl L. West (Arena's Pullman Porter Blues, Jar the Floor), who partners with celebrated director Charles Randolph-Wright (director of Broadway's Motown and an inaugural resident playwright with Arena Stage, where he premiered his play Love in Afghanistan). Akeelah and the Bee runs November 13-December 27, 2015 in the Kreeger Theater.
Based on Doug Atchison's 2006 inspirational family film, the heartwarming drama tells the story of Akeelah, a determined young girl who overcomes numerous challenges to compete at the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Leading the cast as Akeelah is Johannah Easley, who made a splash originating the role in Minneapolis, where her performance was hailed as "delightful and thoroughly engaging" (City Pages) and possessing "effortless naturalism and poetic economy" (Star Tribune). She stars opposite Broadway veteran James A. Williams (originated the role of Roosevelt Hicks in August Wilson's Radio Golf), who continues in his role as her exacting coach Dr. Larabee.
Also reprising their roles from Minneapolis are Aimee K. Bryant as Gail (Akeelah's mom), Nathan Barlow as Reggie (Akeelah's brother), Zaria Graham as Georgia (Akeelah's best friend) and Greta Oglseby as Batty Ruth (a neighbor), along with young actors Leo James as Javier/Chucky, Sean Phinney as Dylan and Molly Yeselson as Izzy/Snorting Girl/Crying Girl. The company also includes Darius Dotch as J.T./DJ Rule/Judge TV Announcer, Ana Christine Evans as Trish/Horse Girl/Mohawk Girl and Shavunda Horsley as Ratchet Rhonda/Foxy Fay. Tony Nam joins the company for the D.C. run as Dylan's Dad/Pronouncer. Casting for the role of Drunk Willie/Principal will be announced at a later date.
"How could I not be excited by this project?" asks Artistic Director Molly Smith. "When Charles Randolph-Wright told me he was working with Cheryl L. West on an adaptation of the beautiful film Akeelah and the Bee, I knew it was too good to pass up. Cheryl is one of Arena's most produced playwrights, and it's easy to see why. In Charles and Cheryl's hands, Akeelah's story will inspire a whole new audience."
"I am thrilled to return home to Arena Stage with Akeelah and the Bee," says Randolph-Wright. "I am from a family of educators, and to be able to tell this compelling and important story in a theater and city that I love is most important to me. To watch these young characters-black, Asian, Latino and white-come together in this journey gives me hope. At such a depressing time in our country where no one seems to be listening to each other, Akeelah steps up to the microphone and through spelling forces us to realize that we have far more in common than we have that is dissimilar. It gives me tremendous pride to direct such an essential story."
"My children and I saw the Akeelah and the Bee movie almost a decade ago," shares West. "Weeks later, my daughters were still repeating Akeelah's spelling vocabulary, especially the word 'prestidigitation.' Personally, the supporting community was the most memorable aspect of the movie and one that is heightened in my stage adaptation. I am grateful that Arena Stage and its wonderful audiences will journey with the resurgent 11-year old Akeelah and her Chicago neighborhood of unsung heroes in the stage show so beautifully directed by Charles Randolph-Wright. And for 25+ years of support, thank you, Arena!"
The creative team for Akeelah and the Bee includes Scenic Designer Alexander V. Nichols, Costume Designer Jessica Jahn, Lighting Designer Michael Gilliam, Sound Designer Sten Severson, Composer Victor Zupanc, Dramaturg Elissa Adams, Assistant Costume Designer Sarah Bahr, Stage Manager Chris Schweiger and Assistant Stage Manager Jenny Brass.
Cheryl L. West (Playwright)'s plays include Pullman Porter Blues, which premiered at Seattle Repertory Theatre and Arena Stage and also played at Goodman Theatre. Her plays have been seen in England, on Broadway (Play On!), Off-Broadway and in numerous regional theaters around the country. She has written television and film projects for Disney, Paramount, MTV Films, Showtime, TNT, HBO and CBS and is the Webby-nominated writer for the original web series Diary of a Single Mom. Cheryl is the recipient of the 2013 American Alliance for Theatre & Education Distinguished Play Award, Helen Hayes/Charles McArthur Award for Outstanding New Play, Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, an international playwriting award for distinguished new plays, National Endowment Playwriting Award and Beverly Hills/Hollywood NAACP Best Playwright Award.
Charles Randolph-Wright (Director) is an inaugural resident playwright at Arena Stage where he premiered his plays Love in Afghanistan, Blue and Cuttin' Up and directed Sophisticated Ladies, Guys and Dolls (both starring Maurice Hines), Oak and Ivy, Anthems, Señor Discretion Himself and Ruined. He directed Motown the Musical on Broadway, the national tour and in London (upcoming). Additional directing credits include the opera Porgy and Bess, Love/Life (starring Brian Stokes Mitchell), Through the Night and They're Playing Our Song (in Portuguese in Brazil). Charles also co-wrote Bea Arthur on Broadway: Just Between Friends. He directed the award-winning film Preaching to the Choir and has written screenplays for HBO, Showtime, Disney and FOX. Television credits include directing Lincoln Heights, South of Nowhere, the "Freestyle" soccer campaign for Nike and Bebe Winans' special America America. He produced and wrote the Showtime series Linc's. Randolph-Wright.com
Principal Cast Biographies (in alphabetical order)
Nathan Barlow (Reggie) most recently performed in Choir Boy at Guthrie Theater. He has performed in over 13 productions at Children's Theatre Company, beginning when he was eight years old, including Cinderella; Bud, Not Buddy; Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas; The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963; and Hansel and Gretel. He is two years out of the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA Actor Training Program and has performed at various theaters in the Twin Cities including Theater Latté Da, Ten Thousand Things and Mixed Blood Theatre.
Aimee K. Bryant (Gail)'s most recent theater credits include The Gospel of Lovingkindness (Pillsbury House Theatre), The Nature Crown (Theatre Forever), The Color Purple (Park Square Theatre) and My Fair Lady (Guthrie Theater). With Children's Theatre Company, her credits include Seedfolks; Stamping, Shouting, Singing Home; Splash Hatch on the E Going Down; A Year with Frog and Toad; and Seussical. Aimee is a 2015 McKnight Fellow at the Playwrights' Center. She was also named Best Actress of 2015 by City Pages.
Darius Dotch (J.T./DJ Rule/Judge/TV Announcer) was recently seen as Lank in Detroit '67 at Penumbra Theatre. Additional credits include Harpo in The Color Purple the Musical and Flip in Stick Fly (Park Square Theatre); Marcus in Colossal (Mixed Blood Theatre); A Civil War Christmas and The Lombardi (History Theatre); Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet (Guthrie Theater); and The Road Weeps, The Well Runs Dry and Broke-ology (Pillsbury House Theatre).
Johannah Easley (Akeelah) is extremely honored to work with this extraordinary cast. She is a core dancer with Journey Productions, which has allowed her to perform at Minneapolis/St. Paul theaters including the Ritz Theater, Pillsbury House Theatre, Walker Art Center and Penumbra Theatre. Other theater credits include The Buddy Holly Story (History Theatre), For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf (Mixed Blood Theatre), Hairspray (History Theatre) and Henry's Freedom Box and Almost to Freedom (SteppingStone Theatre). She would like to give shout outs to her mother, the entire Akeelah and the Bee creative team, her family and teachers/mentors for their support.
Ana Christine Evans (Trish/Horse Girl/Mohawk Girl) is thrilled to make her debut at Arena Stage in Akeelah and the Bee. She has performed in Alice in Wonderland, Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat and Madeline and the Gypsies with Children's Theatre Company. She has also performed with Stages Theatre Company, History Theatre, Bloomington Theatre, Illusion Theater and her high school in Minneapolis. Some of her favorite roles include Alice (Alice in Wonderland), Coco (Coco's Diary) and Louise (Sunday in the Park with George). She thanks her family for their unconditional love and support.
Zaria Graham (Georgia)'s theater credits include Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy (Children's Theatre Company); Into the Mirror, B is for Bully, B Literal Less, Nambi and The Courage of Nine (Capri Theater); and Broadway Bus Stop Production (Intermedia Arts). She appeared on the Disney network and in Star Search. Zaria has performed gospel, pop, theater, musical theater, concert theater and recital repertoire with several Twin Cities artists, working with T. Mychael Rambo, Greta Oglesby, Dennis Spears, Peter C. Brosius and Chico Chavez.
Shavunda Horsley (Ratchet Rhonda/Foxy Fay) has performed at several Twin Cities theaters and arts organizations and will next be seen performing in Six Characters in Search of an Author at Park Square Theatre. Her training includes the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA Actor Training Program and Globe Education (London), and her awards and honors include the 2015 Verve Grant for Spoken Word. Shavunda is the winner of the 2010 Farrago Fresher's Slam (London) and 2010 Whut it Do? Peace Fest and Hip-Hop Competition.
Leo James (Javier/Chucky) is proud and grateful to be making his Arena Stage and D.C.-area debut. Regional credits include Urinetown (Bobby Strong), Brigadoon (Charlie Dalrymple), Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap (Mr. Paravicini), The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Chip Tolentino) and Disney's Beauty and the Beast (Chip). Television credits include national commercial work for Yoplait and Best Buy. He was the first place winner of the 2015 NATS National Singing Conference in Greensboro, NC and recipient of two 2015 Spotlight Awards for Outstanding Performance in a Leading Role (Bobby Strong) and Outstanding Performance in a Supporting Role (Charlie Dalrymple). LJ would like to acknowledge and thank the creative team, Trent and Mr. Randolph-Wright. He dedicates his performance to LP, AJ and JM. Instagram: @TheRealLeoJames.
Tony Nam (Dylan's Dad/Pronouncer) is pleased to be making his first appearance at Arena Stage. He previously performed in the D.C. area at Ford's Theatre (Our Town), the Kennedy Center's Theater for Young Audiences (The Cricket in Times Square, American Scrapbook, Unleashed, Kite on the Wind), Folger Theatre (Much Ado About Nothing, Measure for Measure), Shakespeare Theatre Company (Othello, Pericles), Woolly Mammoth (Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis) and Round House Theatre (Treasure Island). Regional theater credits include Theatre Works (Pacific Overtures, Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Award), Seattle Children's Theatre (The Red Badge of Courage) and Island Stage Left (Much Ado About Nothing). He holds a BA from St. Mary's College of Maryland and an MFA from the University of Washington.
Greta Oglesby (Batty Ruth) made a big splash in the theater community when she played the lead in Tony Kushner's Caroline or Change at Guthrie Theater, for which she received an Ivey Award. Greta's resume includes five seasons at Oregon Shakespeare Festival; Crowns, Burial at Thebes, Sunshine Boys and Appomattox (Guthrie Theater); and Gem of the Ocean and Amen Corner (Goodman Theatre). Greta recently published a book entitled "Mama 'n Nem: Handprints on My Life" (Kirk House Publishers).
Sean Phinney (Dylan) has played parts in three pieces directed by the Saint Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists (SPCPA)-New Play Festival (Penumbra Theatre), Boys from Syracuse (Lehr Theater) and Almost, Maine (Pillsbury House Theatre). He has also been in Junie B. Jones, Dog Sees God and Good 'N' Plenty (Youth Performance Company) and Bully (SteppingStone Theatre). Sean participates in the TruArtSpeaks annual poetry slam competition and had a solo performance at The Garage for his music/spoken word.
James A. Williams (Dr. Larabee) originated the role of Roosevelt Hicks on Broadway in August Wilson's Radio Golf. He appeared Off-Broadway in Wilson's The Piano Lesson and My Children! My Africa!. A founding member of Penumbra Theatre, James has been a regular on Twin Cities stages for over three decades. He has also performed at Center Stage, Goodman Theatre, Huntington Theatre Company, the Kennedy Center, Mark Taper Forum, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Syracuse Stage and Yale Repertory Theatre. He was nominated for an NAACP Image Award in 2007, received an Ivey Award for Performance Excellence in 2008 for his portrayal of Troy Maxson in Fences and was also named 2008 Artist of the Year by Minneapolis' Star Tribune. He was a TCG New Generations Fellow and currently is a 2015 McKnight Theater Fellow at the Playwrights' Center.
Molly Yeselson (Izzy/Snorting Girl/Crying Girl) is thrilled to be making her Arena Stage debut! She attended Camp Arena Stage and was also a member of the Voices of Now Mead Ensemble. Some of her favorite roles have included Betty Parris (The Crucible), Leopold T. Bosco (Stefanie Hero) and the Lord High Underling (The Wiz). She originated the role of Molly in Sparta! The Musical and was also featured in the documentary This is Sparta. She studies private voice with Marilyn Moore and oboe with Kenny Stilwell at the Levine School of Music. Special thanks to Laura Rosberg, Sandra Blakeslee, Sean-Maurice Lynch, Fareed Mostoufi and Ariel Warmflash. Love to Mom, Dad and Maddie. Her favorite word in both English and Latin is "ergo."
The understudy team for Akeelah and the Bee includes Bru Ajueytsi (for Reggie/J.T), Karim Angulo (for Javier/Chucky), Taylor Chunn (for Georgia/Ratchet Rhonda), Lauren Davis (for Gail/Batty Ruth), Emma Sophie Moore (for Trish/Horse Girl/Mohawk Girl), Rafael Untalan (for Dylan's Dad) and Nicole Wildy (for Akeelah). The understudies for Dr. Larabee/Drunk Willie/Principal, Dylan and Izzy/Snorting Girl/Crying Girl will be announced at a later date.