by Linda Lombardi, Artistic Associate and Literary Manager
We're thrilled to have playwright Cheryl L. West return to Arena Stage with her adaptation of Akeelah and the Bee. Cheryl is our most-produced female playwright — and one of our top three produced playwrights in Molly Smith's tenure as Artistic Director. Cheryl is the recipient of the 2013 American Alliance for Theatre & Education Distinguished Play Award, Helen Hayes/Charles McArthur Award for Outstanding New Play, Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, an international playwriting award for distinguished new plays, National Endowment Playwriting Award and Beverly Hills/Hollywood NAACP Best Playwright Award. Below is an excerpt of my conversation with Cheryl at the start of rehearsals for Akeelah and the Bee.
What attracted you to Akeelah and the Bee and why adapt it for the stage?
Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis approached me about adapting the screenplay for stage. It seemed like a great opportunity to say something about a little black girl who triumphs over adversity and finds herself through spelling. Also, I knew the community and neighborhood contributions would be essential to Akeelah’s succeess. Moreover, Akeelah is inspired by her neighborhood and reciprocates by inspiring them to follow their dreams as well.
The movie was originally set in L.A., but I wanted to make the neighborhood more integral in the stage version so I reset it in Chicago — where I was born and raised — a choice I felt would illuminate the insidious violence plaguing my home city and many urban cities like it; cities where children literally feel under siege. Yet, I’m convinced it is our neighborhoods that are going to save our children.
Contrary to what the news says, I believe that there are people in our communities and in our neighborhoods who have always looked out for our children. They are still there, these unsung heroes, men and women who teach us by quiet example. However when you read the papers and watch the news, it appears that adults have given up, retreated behind indifference, apathy and fear. And yet I believe, there is good where we seek it, which means those saviors, those teachers, those coaches, those guardians are still there encouraging our children to be the best they can be. Akeelah and the Bee speaks to that. Akeelah’s neighborhood on the surface is loud and chaotic yet within its concrete boundaries we find love, caring and respect, along with the idea that each child belongs to all of us. It takes a village to raise a child. Akeelah has to learn the value of that sentiment as well.
What’s wonderful about your adaptation is that, even though we may know what’s going to happen, there is still that suspense around whether or not she is going to win the Bee.
At some point, when you adapt something, you have to put the original down. First of all, I’m bored if I can’t use my own imagination. Second, why do something if you can’t bring something new to it? If people want to see the movie, they can rent it. You want to be able to invite in a new audience to Akeelah to experience something they can’t see on Netflix. Though, the original writer/director was very involved throughout the process.
Akeelah has a nemesis in Dylan, the most arrogant little kid you could meet. He knows everything; he has a genius IQ. His father believes that if you lose, you’re a loser for life. So, Dylan always wins. Akeelah’s quite intimidated by him. For Akeelah it’s all so foreign. Her father taught her how to spell. He loved words and taught her to love them as well. Though her spelling is wonderful, Akeelah is failing in school. She is bullied because she’s smart, so she has learned to hide how smart she is. She has learned how to get small. The spelling bee forces her to stand in her power and let her light shine.
Often talent can separate children from popularity, from being accepted and from their own belief in themselves. Akeelah has that challenge. She has learned that the way to keep from being hit or bullied is to get smaller and smaller until she’s almost invisible. Yet, she has moments of bravado and sassiness, both protective shields she uses while navigating her world, a world in which she can’t ever seem to get equal footing in since the loss of her father.
What role does the community play in Akeelah’s journey through the spelling bees?
I feel like every image we are bombarded with now, particularly in the black community, is that we don’t care. Or we don’t care enough. Or we’re not in there trying to change our community. Poverty is one thing, but poverty doesn’t equal not caring or lack of passion or not trying to change things. I believe that people in the community still care and without them, without a sense of neighborhood, our kids don’t stand a chance. Maybe they are not getting what they need in school. It used to be that your teachers lived in your neighborhood, so your teacher had ready access to your parent or they knew your pastor in church. That is not always the case today. We don’t have those supports under our children that we used to have. What art does so well is to give people permission again to get involved, to see something differently, to say, "You know what? There is a kid down the street I’m a little worried about."
Akeelah’s neighborhood is very chaotic and loud. Some people in the audience lean back because it’s so foreign to them, and some people lean forward. Early on, the play has gun shots. For some kids that is not a part of their existence. And in D.C. I bet it’s not like what it was like in Minneapolis. It’s probably more in line with some situations in Chicago. To see a kid go through what Akeelah does and triumph, it is very interesting to see how people respond to that story.
There is a kind of communal experience in theater that we don’t have as many opportunities to experience in our society now. When I watch the show with an audience it’s interesting to see how people are responding. It’s a great opportunity for parents to bring kids and talk about some of the issues that the play raises like bullying and how do you belong to a community and how does a community support you. How do you keep going when there are obstacles? There are many people in this play who are dealing with grief, so how do you process that grief and keep on going? Where does your resiliency come from?
What has your collaboration been like with director Charles Randolph-Wright?
Charles is a hoot. He is so much fun. He is the person that gets me to laugh. Charles asks very good questions. What a playwright loves is a director who can ask you good questions and yet allow you to find your own answers to those questions, as opposed to appropriating the work. Directing Akeelah came at a very challenging time for Charles because he had recently lost his mother, yet his mother was an educator, so in a lot of ways this play meant something very special to him. We had some emotional moments working on Akeelah. I will say he’s a man of his word. He made a commitment to Akeelah and he has seen it through.
How did you start writing and when?
I always wrote. I always kept a journal, secretly. I almost stopped writing because they broke into our house, the gangs. They broke in and stole my journal and then tried to blackmail me with it. So, I stopped writing for some years because I thought, never write something down you don’t want somebody to read.
How old were you at that time?
Teens. But when you’re called to do something, you usually return to it. So I returned to it, but I didn’t know other writers, so I didn’t think you could make a living as a writer. I have an undergrad degree in criminal justice and I have a Master’s in rehab administration and I have another Master’s in journalism. I became good with people, but I always secretly wrote just like I did when I was a kid. Finally, I said, “I’m going to give myself five years to see if I can make it as a writer.” I started off writing at the community level and was blessed. The community college gave me a space to produce my work and I kept working and learning, and four years later I was able to support myself as a full-time writer. I’ve never looked back.
One final question…what is your favorite word? (You don’t have to spell it!)
Hmmm…maybe perseverance. It’s really on my mind at the moment as I face my own personal and professional challenges. Like Akeelah, I plan to soldier on.
(Photos: Cheryl L. West. Johannah Easley as Akeelah and James A. Williams as Dr. Larabee in Children’s Theatre Company’s Akeelah and the Bee at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Dan Norman.)