‘Akeelah and the Bee’ spells fun for whole family

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"Miss Anderson, your next word … is triskaidekaphobia.*"

As 11-year-old Akeelah Anderson's eyes widen and fists clench in concentration, theatergoers are on the edge of their chairs in what feels like front-row seats at a spelling bee.

"Akeelah and the Bee," a fresh and polished production by the Children's Theatre Company, addresses themes of race, class and family while it centers on a spelling prodigy and the obstacles she overcomes to compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Coming to Arena Stage in Washington after its premiere run in Minneapolis, the play is sprinkled with more unusual words than a master Scrabble player could wield.

The play was adapted by Cheryl West from Doug Atchison's 2006 film and begins with Akeelah, played by Johannah Easley, praying to God to bless her hard-working mother and big-hearted but delinquent brother. The family lives in a poor, predominantly African-American neighborhood, where regular gang violence is responsible for the death of Akeelah's father.

Her father is remembered as a kind and intelligent man who excelled at crossword puzzles and fed his daughter's love of language and brain vault of spelling words.

After his death, his wife, Gail, played by Aimee Bryant, works to keep food on the table and her son out of the alluring neighborhood gangs. Unlike his logophile sister, teenage Reggie, played by Nathan Barlow, struggles with his letters along with finding and keeping a job.

Coaching Akeelah as she progresses to the nation's top spelling bee is Dr. Joshua Larabee - played effortlessly by James Williams - a dignified professorial type who has endured his own losses. A good portion of the play includes Dr. Larabee and Akeelah's sparring - a demonstration of the student's feistiness and Dr. Larabee's efforts to channel it toward successful spelling.

Dr. Larabee grew up in Akeelah's neighborhood and squelched his chance to become top speller in the nation when he punched a contestant who called him a racial slur. He wants to help Akeelah become a word whizz but also to discover her own strength, strength he didn't have as he confronted racism.

During one lesson in his study, he tells Akeelah to read a plaque on the wall.

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate," Akeelah reads. "Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure."

Dr. Larabee then asks her, "What if … you were so powerful and courageous that all those who laugh now will one day want to be you?"

"Who would wanna be me? Half the time I don't even wanna be me," says Akeelah.

"Don't you ever bully yourself in my presence," responds Dr. Larabee. "You will stand in your power, which starts by standing up straight and being focused on the goal at hand."

Akeelah focuses but also stumbles, and her community rallies around her and gives her the boost she needs. As they unite to help - the kindly drunk, the immigrant shopkeeper's daughter, the gospel-singing, overbearing neighbor - they emerge better for it.

Like in West's "Pullman Porter Blues," the script teeters on stereotyping but recovers by adding just enough depth to characters to give them dimension.

Easley is charming as Akeelah, although at times she could tone down her projection.

Ana Christine Evans is a standout as she juggles three spelling-contestant roles, playing a Texan, a mohawk-sporting speller and Trish, Akeelah's endearing, adorably enthusiastic friend with a speech

The set is sparse, with large, movable rectangular cubes shifting the scene from study to inner-city neighborhood to spelling bee stage. The director uses the playgoers as part of the set and blurs the line between stage and audience, having cast members sit in front-row seats and walk down the aisles.

The championship round is filmed by a cameraman, and the images are projected on large screens -evoking the feeling of a live televised bee.

Thus, when Akeelah takes a deep breath and tackles the seven-syllable word, theatergoers are caught up in the moment and can't help hoping she nails every letter.

(*Triskaidekaphobia means "fear of the number 13." Kudos if you knew that.)

If you go

"Akeelah and the Bee," suitable for all but the youngest children, runs through Dec. 27 at Arena Stage in Washington. For tickets and more information, go to arenastage.com

Arena Stage's Pay Your Age program offers ticket prices that correspond to theatergoers' age for patrons under 30 years old.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015