‘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.
“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.