By: BWW News Desk
Photo Credit: Cameron Whitman
Link to original article: Broadway World
Fresh off its world-premiere run in Minneapolis, 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 now through December 27, 2015 in the Kreeger Theater, and BroadwayWorld has photos from the opening night festivites at Arena Stage below!
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.
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.
Charles Randolph-Wright directed ‘Akeelah and the Bee’ and ‘Motown the Musical.’ The two shows have more than a director in common. Akeelah is based on the 2006 film about a girl from a public housing project whose brains and resilience lead her to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Motown is adapted from Berry Gordy’s book about his iconic record label, which helped launch the careers of artists like Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson. Randolph-Wright was drawn to these plays because they both send their characters on a boundary-crossing, hurdle-jumping journey to achieve their goals.
“Geography doesn’t limit your dream. Your neighborhood doesn’t limit your dream,” he says. “No matter where you are from, no matter who you are, color, etc. You can go after your dream. That’s what Berry Gordy did. That’s what Akeelah did.”
This message shows up often in Randolph-Wright’s work and is even reflected in his own life. He grew up in York, South Carolina and graduated from Duke University with a double major in theater and religion. He studied Shakespeare in London and dance in New York City, eventually getting an ensemble role in the original cast of Dreamgirls on Broadway. He has since built a prolific career directing and producing for theater, film, and television, where his credits including episodes of the ABC Family series Lincoln Heights and the Showtime series Linc’s. He’s a resident playwright at Arena Stage; in 2010, he directed Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies, which broke Arena’s box office record.
Though his resume covers a lot of ground, Randolph-Wright chooses his projects carefully. “There are a lot of things I turn down,” he says. “I don’t ever want to settle for some piece that’s not expressing the things that are on my mind. I do feel a responsibility as an artist to do the kind of work that I do.”
Part of that responsibility involves conveying to young people, especially young people of color, that they shouldn’t limit their ambitions. “I realize the importance of kids seeing people who look like them,” he says. “When they see that, they then have permission. They are enabled to go after something, to believe they can attain a certain dream.”
When Randolph-Wright goes to the theater, he’s often one of only a few people of color there. That imbalance is echoed in the stories told onstage. “Too often the people making the choices of shows pick the shows that relate to them,” he says. “And the people who are doing that don’t look like us.”
In recent years, television has made progress in diversifying its stories and casts, but Randolph-Wright says live theater, particularly on Broadway, hasn’t followed suit: “I believe that television is winning that game. We must do better in the theater, we must.” In that realm, however, Washington is performing better than New York. “The audience is a true mixture of people,” he says of DC theater. “You have every type of person. Every age, every color. That’s unique, unfortunately, in the world of theater.”
The title character of Akeelah and the Bee is African-American, and the cast features Latino, white, and Asian children. Motown the Musical celebrates the legacy of some of music’s most influential black artists. Randolph-Wright hopes that bringing these stories to DC stages will have a unifying effect. “It’s the nation’s capital,” he says. “We’re so divided in our country. I hope that politicians come and let go of their colors, their red and blue colors, for an instant. That’s what we have to focus on. What can we do together, as opposed to what do we do to keep us apart.”
by Rohan Preston
Read the original article here: http://www.startribune.com/children-s-theatre-has-big-dreams-for-akeelah-and-the-bee/324125331/#5
Children’s Theatre has high hopes for “Akeelah and the Bee,” which will get an East Coast showcase after its local
‘Go big, or go home.”
That could be the motto of the Children’s Theatre Company as it kicks off its 50th-anniversary season with the buzzy premiere of “Akeelah and the Bee.”
Playwright Cheryl West’s adaptation of the inspirational film about a spelling-bee prodigy opens Friday in Minneapolis under the eye of celebrated Broadway director Charles Randolph-Wright (“Motown: The Musical”).
It’s a high-wattage effort brimming with ambition. Three weeks after closing in Minneapolis, the production will open for a six-week run at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. — just a short hop for curious New York producers.
Anticipation around “Akeelah” recalls a similar excitement in 2002, when “A Year With Frog and Toad” premiered in Minneapolis before transferring to Times Square.
Although the production team is made up of Broadway veterans and the cast includes two local stars with Broadway credits (Greta Oglesby and James A. Williams), CTC artistic director Peter Brosius is trying to tamp down expectations of a New York transfer.
“What’s so fun is that we not only get to make work that’s inspiring and delightful for our audience at home but also nationally,” he said. “Like we did with ‘Frog and Toad,’ we’re building new relationships and partnerships.”
CTC — the nation’s largest theater for youth and families — has frequently seeded the field with commissions of new plays
as well as book adaptations, but this is the first time the company has tried to turn a feature film into a stage production.
“Akeelah” is based on writer/director Doug Atchison’s 2006 movie about an 11-year-old girl in difficult circumstances who loves to spell and to learn.
Akeelah lost her father to gun violence. She lives with her mother, who is still mourning her husband’s passing. With the help of a visiting professor, Dr. Larabee, who is grieving his daughter’s death at about Akeelah’s age, and with the deep support from her urban community, Akeelah competes successfully in the National Spelling Bee.
Starring Laurence Fishburne as Dr. Larabee and Angela Bassett as Akeelah’s mother, the film was an indie hit, grossing $18 million at the box office and $25 million more through DVD sales.
It was Essence Stiggers, a frequent student performer at CTC, who suggested to Brosius that it might make a good stage show. (She’s an understudy in this production.) Through the film’s producer, a former board member of the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, where Brosius worked for a dozen years, Brosius landed a phone call with Atchison.
The stage version is different from the film in various ways. Playwright West, who adapted “Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy” for CTC in 2012, has cut some characters and combined others. She also has changed the setting from Los Angeles to her hometown of Chicago, which, sadly, has been wracked by gun violence.
Atchison approves of the adaptation.
“The story is of a girl on a journey who’s saddled with the kinds of doubts we all have but comes to realize that with the support of her community, she can see the talent, beauty and love that’s all around her,” he said. “The themes and intent of the story are all there, and Cheryl, and Charles, using their great skills, have translated it into another medium so it can have this other life.”
Atchison added that he is especially fond of the Children’s Theatre. “Every community should have one,” he said.
Onstage, the role of Akeelah will be originated by relative newcomer Johannah Easley, whom her director and castmates describe as “a stage natural.”
“I saw a lot of actors, and Johannah has the attitude, the instincts, the smarts, everything that you want for a character like this,” said director Randolph-Wright.
Even though this show marks her big break, Easley, 16, a student of St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists, grew up in the theater. From the time she was knee-high to a flea, she was in the rehearsal room for shows by Journey Productions, a culturally rooted company run by producer/director Tonia Williams that has done African-American riffs on fairy- and folk tales as well as original productions.
Easley also has studied at companies based in north Minneapolis, including Art of Dance and Hollywood Studios as well as the Plymouth Christian Youth Center, where her mentors included Oglesby and fellow cast member Dennis Spears.
“This child, ooh, she’s going to blow some minds,” said Spears. “She’s so skilled, but what’s amazing is that she knows, intuitively, what is the best thing for her character.”
The all-star cast includes Aimee K. Bryant, Nathan Barlow and Shawn Hamilton, all of whom spoke of their roles in terms that suggest this is not just a regular gig, but something of a mission.
This is a “rare” story, said Oglesby, who plays a good-hearted busybody. With the level of violence in urban neighborhoods, she said it’s important that people in those communities have opportunities to dream.
“It’s such a positive story of family and community coming together around this wonderful girl against the odds,” said Oglesby. “She’s got this loving community that embraces her, undergirds her. It’s such a positive message that we need so badly in times like these.”
Culture shapes how people see each other, Bryant said.
“We need the world to see us the way we know ourselves,” she said. “I grew up in Detroit in the ’80s when people were getting shot for silk shirts and Starter jackets. That was bad, but that’s not all there was. This play shows the other side of that.”
The show is especially sweet for Randolph-Wright and playwright West, both of whom hail from families filled with educators. In fact, Randolph-Wright, a Duke graduate, has relatives in the Twin Cities, including the Purvises of Golden Valley, who are prominent in education and business.
An in-demand director, Randolph-Wright deflected entreaties to take on more lucrative projects during this period. “This is essential theater,” he said. West agreed.
“It’s a celebration of all the people who make up these communities and do great things to support each other but are unsung,” she said. “Every community has them — or used to — people who watch out for the kids, who teach them and cheer them on.”
It might be a cliché, but as Akeelah learned — and CTC already knows — it takes a village to support a dream.
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