by Linda Lombardi, Artistic Associate and Literary Manager
We’re thrilled to have Johannah Easley make her Arena Stage debut as the title role in Akeelah and the Bee. As Akeelah, she continues to inspire audiences with her determination and passion; empowering young women – both on stage and off. Shortly after opening, I caught up with Johannah after a matinee to discuss the show, D.C. audiences, and her next exciting project. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.
How would you describe Akeelah?
She's very helpful, intelligent and headstrong. She's an 11-year-old girl from a family that's not your typical white-picket-fence-family. They live in a small apartment building in the south side of Chicago. Her mom's an overworked nurse's aide, her brother's a high-school dropout, and her dad's dead. She has a lot of internal stuff going on. She's such a complicated character. She has so much going on inside that sometimes the inside spills out. She can say something and not realize what she’s said until it’s too late. Sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes it's not.
What attracted you to the role of Akeelah?
Actually, I didn't want to be Akeelah when I auditioned. I wanted to be Georgia, the best friend. I didn't think I was good enough to be Akeelah. But after I started working on it I realized we have a lot in common. I have a single mom who’s an overworked nurse. My brother will do whatever he can to make sure I get what I want. I had a mentor in my life who took me under her wing and made me the actress and the person that I am today, along with the help of my family. It made me feel vulnerable at first because I thought, “This is too much like me. It's too real and I won’t be able to do it.” And sometimes it is hard for me to do the show. But this is a good story and there are a lot of people who look like me and look like the other people in the cast or have experiences like the other people in our show, and they'll be touched.
How have audience reactions differed from Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis to what you’re experiencing in D.C.?
At CTC the audience was predominantly white and they were predominantly children 12 and younger. There are a lot of subliminal messages and a lot of foreshadowing in our show and I think it didn't click for them as much as it does with the audience here, although some audiences there understood right away what was going on. But here, for one, it's an older audience that's coming to see our show, and more people of color. Akeelah is a family show and it's a kid's show, but it's a story that means something, and for the audience here you can actually hear them say “oh heck no” and “mm-hmmm, I knew it.”
At Children’s Theatre Company we became so tight as a cast because we were with each other all the time. From the get-go we all had good chemistry and we were all very open, and when Milton [Craig Nealy] and Tony [Nam] joined us here in D.C., we welcomed them with open arms. I think that's why our show is so strong. We've done it so many times with each other and now it's a fresh start and it's new.
Why do you think Akeelah's story resonates with audiences of all ages?
Probably because of the different levels of where people are in their life. Akeelah’s starting to figure out who she is, and that connects with teenagers. Plus there's the bullying aspect and not wanting to be in school. And then there's Batty Ruth and Drunk Willie who have been married for 40-something years but are now separated, and that can relate to an older part of life. The story has some heartbreak, there's some laughter, there's everything. That’s why it's for all types of people and all ages.
Actually the trickiest word that I had to spell is no longer in the script! That part in the show where I spell four words back-to-back at Nationals? There was another word in there that I just could not pronounce and kept spelling wrong. Now the hardest word is triskaidekaphobia. Not because it's a long word but because sometimes I get messed up in the rhythm and I forget if I spelled a letter or not. Akeelah taps on her thigh but I actually have to make it a beat in my head, or I mess up.
What creature comforts did you bring with you for that touch of home?
I have a little stuffed zebra named Mason. I brought a blanket. My grandma makes Russian spice tea every year around the holidays and she made me a big mason jar of that.
Any pre- or post-show rituals?
We do warm-ups every day which is nice. Zaria [Graham] and I play music while we're in the dressing room. Aimee [Bryant], Nathan [Barrow] and I have our “family hug” before every show.
What do you want to do in D.C. while here?
I've been to the monuments. We went to the museums and we went on a Segway tour last night. I want to see the Holocaust Museum. I really want to see Motown and some more shows. We're seeing Oliver tonight. I want to go to the White House.
What’s next for you?
My school has this thing called J-term. In the month of January we don't have any academic classes. Everyone's in an assigned show and I got assigned to the female version of The Lord of the Flies. I play the Roger character, who’s named Ruby. We're petitioning to change them back to the male names. We'll see how that works out. I have four days off after Akeelah and then I start rehearsals for The Lord of the Flies. Life of an actor!
(Photo: Johannah Easley as Akeelah in Children’s Theatre Company’s Akeelah and the Bee at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Dan Norman.)