Reviewed by Katherine O’Donnell
A powerful and thought-provoking play from Virginia Rep, Akeelah and the Bee is the story of Akeelah, an 11-year-old spelling prodigy who overcomes challenging odds to make it to the National Spelling Bee. In addition to an important message of perseverance, the show explores themes of friendship and community that, while complex, are hopeful.
Based on a 2006 movie of the same name, the play covers weighty topics including poverty, violence, and the death of a family member. As the first non-musical play my family attended at the Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn, I wondered how the kids would react to two acts of compelling dialogue along a dramatic plotline. They were on the edge of their seats.
The entire cast did a great job bringing the story to life. For my kids, the highlight was seeing how well the youth actors performed, most of whom memorized spelling and pronunciation of extremely difficult words for the spelling bee portions of the play. Akeelah’s best friend Georgia, played by Taylor Cannon, and her new spelling club friends Trish, played by Samantha Easter, and Javier, played by Rowan Sharma, were charming and engaging characters.
The topics resonated at varying levels with our crew of different ages. My daughter, Norah, who is eight, brought her 10-year-old friend Campbell. My son Henry is five. They all understood the main theme of perseverance embodied in Akeelah, played by the adorable and talented Abigail Cook-Robinson, as she worked her way to the National Spelling Bee Championships.
On the car ride home, I asked the kids questions about the play and its characters. Many of play’s characters are multi-faceted, making it more difficult for the kids to articulate how they feel about them. Take Dr. Larabee, played by Virginia Rep veteran William Anderson, who is Akeelah’s coach. His rigid tutoring and tendency to keep Akeelah at arm’s length emotionally caused the kids to deem him “strict, but nice in the end.” On the other hand, they had no trouble assessing Dr. Chiu, the over-bearing father of one of Akeelah’s competitors, as “really mean!” Dr. Chiu, played by Axle Burtness, seemed to care more about winning than his son—a message that came right through to the kids.
While the plot and dialogue were mostly serious, a few well-placed jokes had several adults in the audience roaring. And the mostly pop music played in between the scenes added levity to the overall production.
While all of the kids in our group enjoyed the play, the ideal audience for Akeelah and the Bee is eight or older as noted on the website. The production is a fabulous source for conversation about serious themes that might not come up in everyday conversation.
Akeelah and the Bee runs through November 5 at the Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn. Click here for showtime and tickets.
Katherine O’Donnell lives in Henrico County with her husband, Darby, and their two children. She’s an avid RVA fan and a University of Richmond graduate. A North Carolina native, she says y’all regularly and believes snow is always an occasion to celebrate.