Shy and scared, Akeelah has a special talent. The bright middle-schooler in a tough Chicago neighborhood can spell like the dickens. Her ride from the inner city to the national spelling bee fueled the feel-good film, and does the same for the stage version at the Children's Theatre Company.
The ambitious Akeelah and the Bee does plenty right, including offering a ground-level glimpse into a world alien to most of us. Cheryl L. West's script is a bit fuzzy at times, but the power of the performances wins out in the end.
Akeelah (Johannah Easley) is in a bad place when the play begins. Her father is dead, gunned down while being mugged. Her mother (Aimee K. Bryant) is struggling with grief and her brother, Reggie (Nathan Barlow), is flirting with a dangerous path that could lead to prison or death.
Our hero is very bright, and she loves to spell words. It's something she used to practice with her father, and she uses her skill to win the school spelling bee. This puts her on a difficult journey through the various stages to the national championship in Washington, D.C.
It's not smooth sailing. There are the other competitors, who have often had coaching for years. Akeelah's mentor comes in the form of Dr. Larabee (James A. Williams), who pushes the youngster to excel not just at spelling, but at everything.
So we have the pieces for a by-the-book sports inspiration story, and the play pretty much unfolds in that fashion. There are missteps, difficulties, and near tragedies along the way, but the outcome isn’t really in doubt. It’s the characters — and an overwhelming sense of “it takes a village” — that makes the play engaging.
At the top, Easley is delightful and thoroughly engaging as Akeelah. The role has plenty of facets — Akeelah isn’t always likable — and Easley digs into each of them while keeping our sympathies clearly with the hero.
The same goes for the adults in her life, with Bryant, Barlow, and Williams doing their typical excellent work. They are aided by good character performances by Greta Oglesby and Shawn Hamilton as an older neighborhood couple who find inspiration in Akeelah’s story.
While the characters and performances are usually crystal clear, the plot sometimes moves in fits and starts. At times the story, which is really quite simple, is hard to follow, even when just a couple more facts tossed in would have made it clear. And the “squirrel test” extended beyond the usual young children to their older siblings and the adults. The play could stand to lose a few minutes to keep the action humming along to the end.
IF YOU GO:
Akeelah and the Bee
Through Oct. 11
Children’s Theatre Company
2400 Third Ave. S., Minneapolis
For tickets and more information, call 612-874-0400 or visit online.