‘Akeelah and the Bee,’ encouraging message marred in formulaic dialogue

Arts no chaserWhen Children’s Theatre Company (CTC) artistic director Peter Brosius took over, words multiculturalism and diversity were merely P.C. buzzwords at North America’s leading stage venue for youngsters. He swiftly put teeth in CTC’s espoused mission with productions like Once on This IslandThe Beggars’ StrikeMississippi Panorama and A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.

Johannah Easley and Zaria Graham by Dan Norman
Johannah Easley and Zaria Graham by Dan Norman

Since then, he has brought in top-flight playwriting talent to ensure cultural integrity. Heavies like Lonnie Carter’s The Lost Boys of the Sudan, Kia Corthron’s Splash Hatch on the E Going Down and Lynne Alvarez’s adaptation of Pam Munoz Ryan novel Esperanza Rising.

At the news Brosious would mount the world premiere of Chery L. West’s Akeelah and the Bee, which moves to Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. come November, one had reason to have high expectations.

West, after all, delighted Penumbra Theatre audiences some time ago with her poignantly insightful, profoundly moving Jar the Floor (Beverly Hills/Hollywood NAACP Best Play), displaying a wondrously deft hand at according her characters — all women ‒‒ compelling humanity.

She also, with uncanny skill, structured a script that twisted its tone on a dime in a climax that left your jaw hanging slack. For good measure, West’s track record also lists Before It Hits Home (AUDELCO Award), Pullman Porter Blues (Seattle Repertory Theatre) and Holiday Heart the Showtime version of which,  directed by Robert Townsend, starred Ving Rhames and Alfre Woodard. One couldn’t help looking forward to what she would do with the saga of a Black girl’s courageous coming into her own in Akeelah and the Bee.

Johannah Easley by Dan Norman
Johannah Easley by Dan Norman

Regrettably, one needn’t have bothered. The greatest flaws with this play can’t be blamed on any adaptation. It is stuffed with stock types instead of thoughtfully drawn characters and even the plucky little protagonist could stand more dimension.

Its storybook ending, must as we root for Akeelah, is sappy, formulaic drivel.  None of which lets Cheryl L. West off the hook. The one place where an adaptation has license to improve upon the original, giving the story a fresh signature, she instead phones in. Stilted dialogue plagues this script relentlessly.

Characterizations, save Akeelah and her mentor, scholar Dr. Larabee, are static, rendering any sense of immediacy completely inert and making what should be an inspirational tale little more than a paint-by-number indulgence in feel-good pap.

A cast top-loaded with Penumbra Theatre veterans James A. Williams, Aimee K. Bryant and Greta Oglesby, along with Shawn Hamilton (Guthrie Theater/Penumbra /Mixed Blood Theatre), showcases a knockout turn by supporting actor ShaVunda Horsley as the delightfully devilish Rachet Rhonda, and one auspiciously gifted Johannah Easley in the title role.

Director Charles Randolph-Wright (Motown the Musical) elicits smart acting to scant avail and as things draw to a close indulges pat slapstick that would be suited to vaudeville.

Ultimately, between screenwriter Doug Atchison’s story, West’s uncharacteristically slipshod, take-the-money-and-run script, and Randolph-Wright’s largely slick production, the only thing there really is to be said good of this show is its message encouraging girls to be all they can be despite whatever the odds.

Playwriting rule of thumb: you want to send a message, use Western Union — plays are for storytelling, something that simply doesn’t get done here.

 

Children’s Theatre Company 50th anniversary season opens with Akeelah and the Bee, running through October 11 before moving to Arena Stage in Washington D.C., in November.  2400 3rd Avenue South, Minneapolis. Ticket info: 612-874-0400 or http://www.childrenstheatre.org.

 

Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.