If playwright Cheryl West’s keen and moving adaptation of “Akeelah and the Bee” brings tears to the eyes of audience members — and many were sniffling during the extended standing ovation at Friday’s opening night performance at the Children’s Theatre in Minneapolis — a lot of credit goes to teen actor Johannah Easley.
As the 11-year-old spelling prodigy at the center of this play adapted from Doug Atchison’s 2006 film, Easley performs with such effortless naturalism and poetic economy, it’s hard to say where actor ends and character begins. Easley manifests all of the young word-lover’s fears and hopes as she fights for her dreams in a hard urban environment. Easley’s Akeelah also shows that she understands the investment that the community has made in her, and that she is ready to be their standard-bearer.
Astutely directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, “Akeelah” begins and ends in urban cacophony, but the characters journey from difficulty to a place of grace. The action, which takes place on Chicago’s South Side, commences with gunfire that makes Akeelah, who is in her upstairs bedroom, fearful of going to the window. A sense of siege permeates her world. Her father, who also is father to fearless older brother Reggie (Nathan Barlow) and husband of her mother, nurse Gail (Aimee K. Bryant), was gunned down less than a year ago.
Akeelah may have a father figure in Dr. Larabee (James A. Williams), a professor who lost a girl her age and is willing to coach her. The neighborhood characters include Batty Ruth (Greta Oglesby), a devout community guardian who keeps her Bible and a baseball bat at the ready; her husband, Drunk Willie (Shawn Hamilton); and drug dealer J.T. (Darius Dotch).
Cocksure speller Dylan (Sean Phinney) and his archly humorless dad (Michael Sung-Ho) also are in a narrative that includes Akeelah’s jealous best friend, Georgia (Zaria Graham) and gleeful tormentor Ratchet Rhonda (ShaVunda Horsley).
The cast of “Akeelah” includes some of the Twin Cities’ finest actors, and they hardly disappoint. Bryant gives us an overworked, worried Gail with tunnel vision. She cares for Akeelah but has more pressing concerns for her wayward son. Williams’ Dr. Larabee is a grieving man even if he would rather not show it to anyone, least of all a spunky fighter like Akeelah. He does crack a smile once after Akeelah leaves, in admiration for her fighting spirit.
Oglesby, who has expert comic timing, has played similar roles to her Batty Ruth but her combination of sass, wisdom and righteous fervor never gets old. Hamilton does notable double duty as the doddering drunk and the focused principal.
The newcomers in the cast also are impressive. Horsley, as Akeelah’s dumb but assured tormentor Ratchet Rhonda, has so transformed herself from previous shows that she is funnily unrecognizable. Leo James brings solid chops to Javier, who has a crush on Akeelah. And Phinney redeems Dylan, whose father remains, as in the film, a stern cipher.
Over the past two decades, kids of color have often been defined in terms that problematize their potential and promise. The fictional super-predatory “crack babies,” heralded as an unstoppable menace in the ’90s, have given way to the castigated “anchor baby” in today’s political discourse.
But as “Akeelah” makes clear, children have potential not just for personal actualization, but also to heal a community. In her rugged, weary community, Akeelah embodies both brilliance and balm.