Cheryl L. West sees a connection between her choice to become a playwright and the young heroine in her current adaptation at the Children’s Theatre, Akeelah and the Bee.
“I think I was very much like Akeelah. I loved words and I loved stories. My great-grandparents were great storytellers. I loved their use of language. I wanted to tell stories, and I wanted to validate the experiences of my community,” West says.
West, whose past work includes Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy (a CTC production in 2012), dug into the story and the characters. The piece originated in a 2006 film created by Doug Atchison and starring Lawrence Fishburne, Angela Basset, and Keke Palmer. Like the movie, the play centers on preteen Akeelah, whose love of learning gives her a chance to escape her Chicago neighborhood for the national spelling bee in Washington, D.C.
“You want to honor what has been done before, but then perhaps put a fresh spin on it. You want to maintain the integrity of the original work,” West says. This includes moving the action from Los Angeles to Chicago.
“That change in location affects the influences on Akeelah’s world,” she says.
Along with the original material, West’s research included learning plenty about the rhythms and and drama of the actual Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Throughout the adapting process, creator Atchison has been involved. “He has been here during rehearsals and through the different versions of the script. We’ve been able to use him as a wonderful resource,” West says.
“I am rewriting like a fiend,” she says. “I feel previews are still your working time. It is when the audience can teach you places to tighten up the show or what is not clear. This is your time to roll up your sleeves.”
The experience doesn’t end with CTC. The production will transfer to Arena Stages in Washington, D.C., following the Minneapolis run.
The CTC production is directed by Charles Randolph-Wright. The company includes Johanna Easley as Akeelah, Aimee Bryant, Nathan Barlow, James A. Williams, and Greta Oglesby. The mix of veteran performers and talented youngsters has made the final dash from rehearsals to opening night a smooth one.
"[The company is] extraordinary. I can’t say enough good things about them. They love what they are doing. It is great when you are in a room where the actors are on the same train as you are. They love this story they are telling,” West says. “The kids are paying attention to each other and helping each other. In a sense, we have made a family in the Akeelah company, and that is quite extraordinary.”
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.