Chicago Theatre Review
Pulchritude and a Second Chance
Akeelah and the Bee – Adventure Stage
A precocious 11-year-old girl named Akeelah Anderson lives on Chicago’s rough, gritty South Side. Adapted for the stage by Cheryl L. West, from Doug Atchison’s 2006 film, the play opens with late night gunshots. They awaken and, understandably, terrify the young middle school student almost every night. Akeelah tries to return to sleep, but her home is filled with nightmares about her father’s death. He was in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and died when a stray bullet struck him. Akeelah shares this home with her mother, Gail, a young widowed mother trying to support her family as a nurse’s aide (with aspirations of becoming a nurse). Akeelah’s older brother, Reggie, himself, is a rebellious young father trying to find and keep a job in a tumultuous neighborhood. Every character in this story is eager for a second chance in life.
The single ray of sunshine and satisfaction in Akeelah’s young life is her passion for words, learning and, more specifically, spelling. Seeing the glimmer of brilliance in this student, the Principal encourages Akeelah to participate in the school spelling competition that will ultimately propel the winner to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. He introduces her to Dr. Larabee, his college-educated African American friend who, if Akeelah opens herself to his help, will become her mentor and spelling coach. She learns far more from Dr. Larabee than simply how to spell.
Akeelah’s goal to become a spelling champion takes her beyond the close-knit world of her family, her neighbors Batty Ruth and Drunk Willie and her close friend Georgia. She makes new friends with three young spelling enthusiasts from the wealthier, northern suburb of Barrington, including her toughest competitor, Dylan. Dominated by an overbearing father, who won’t accept anything less than perfection from his son, Dylan has his own problems and pressures.
This is an inspiring and beautifully-enacted story of second chances. In this play, we witness a spunky young girl’s determination and her journey to escape her mundane, crime-infested life to achieve personal victory and success. Superbly guided by respected Chicago director Daryl Brooks, this heartwarming play is timely and relatable to audiences of every age. Staged within Simon Lashford’s nicely adaptable scenic design, that features projections by Aaron Quick and original music composed by Michael Huey, this production deserves the success that it achieves.
The talented cast, many of whom capably portray several very different characters, is led by newcomer La Shone T. Kelly, as Akeelah. If this role is any indication, the young actress has a great future ahead of her. She creates an honest, feisty young girl who tries her best to be all things to everyone. But when Akeelah finally understands the importance of being true to herself and her own needs and aspirations, she turns into the young woman that she was destined to become. The audience cheers for this character all through her story and it’s because of Ms. Kelly’s brilliant, unaffected portrayal.
The adults in Akeelah’s life are all played with passion and dignity by five talented actors. Gabrielle Lott-Rogers is a warm, caring mother as Gail. We deeply feel her frustration at trying to keep her family fed and safe, while trying to cope with the recent death of her husband, and still finding time to dream about a better, more fulfilling future for herself. Gail deserves an entire play of her own, as played to perfection by Ms. Lott-Rogers. As Dr. Larabee, Michael Anthony Rawlins is especially wonderful. He brings the strength, integrity and professionalism to this part that Laurence Fishburne brought to the same role in the 2006 film version. Rawlins creates an upright, intelligent and compassionate man, an adult who knows the doors that can be unlocked and the barriers that will fall by attaining a sound education. He’s also a father, secretly coping with the death of his own daughter, which makes his devotion to young Akeelah so poignant.
Kelvin Davis is terrific, playing both Drunk Willie, the neighborhood handyman, and Akeelah’s school Principal, who wants the best for his students and a little recognition for his school. An absolute delight, Yahdina U-Deen is full of spirit and wonderfully funny as well as Batty Ruth, the protective and loving neighbor. And Arvin Jalandoon splits his stage time between playing Dylan’s unpleasant, demanding dad and the Pronouncer at the various spelling bees.
The younger people in this story are played with youthful energy and enthusiasm. They include Brandi Lee as young fashionista Georgia, Akeelah’s best friend; Eric Gerard in the challenging role of Akeelah’s older brother Reggie, a teenage father who can’t seem to catch a break; Glenn Obrero playing both staunchly determined Dylan, Akeelah’s chief spelling rival, and JT, a young, sketchy neighborhood kid who seems to always have an angle for making a quick buck; Kyra Jones plays both school bully, Ratchet Ronda, and an moderator at the National Spelling Bee; Gaby FeBland does a great job as both nerdy Barrington student, Trish, and the Mohawk Girl at Akeelah’s school. But the standout among the supporting cast is unquestionably Brandon Rivera, who’s endearing, both as Javier and Chucky. This young man all but steals the show with his unabashed humor and his earnest, sweetly sincere characterizations.
Everyone enjoys an inspiring story about an underdog who works hard and eventually succeeds. In this kickoff to Adventure Stage’s 14th season, audiences will be treated to an exhilarating tale about a school-age girl from the South Side of Chicago, with dreams of becoming the National Spelling Bee champion. This production launches the award-winning family theatre company’s season that will, in all its plays, explore the theme of Literacy. Audiences of every age will fall in love Akeelah, her family and her friends. It’s a story filled with pulchritude (a new word audiences will learn in this play) and a positive message that will linger in theatergoers’ hearts for a long time to come.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 28-November 25 by Adventure Stage at Northwestern Settlement’s Vittum Theatre, 1012 N. Noble St., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling 773-342-4141 or by going to www.AdventureStage.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.