James A. Williams (left) as Dr. Larabee and Johannah Easley as Akeelah in Children's Theatre Company's "Akeelah and the Bee" at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater Nov. 13-Dec. 27. (Dan Norman)
(L to R) James A. Williams as Dr. Larabee and Johannah Easley as Akeelah in Children’s Theatre Company’s Akeelah and the Bee at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater November 13-December 27, 2015. Photo by Dan Norman.

After a successful world-premiere run in Minneapolis, a new production about an 11-year-old spelling prodigy, “Akeelah and the Bee,” prepares for its D.C. appearance at the Arena Stage in Southwest.

The inspirational, heartwarming story, which many may remember seeing as a film in 2006, has been adapted for the stage by veteran playwright Cheryl L. West in collaboration with director Charles Randolph-Wright.

The play, a Children’s Theatre Company production, promises to be a sure hit for families or anyone who likes a tale with a happy ending and runs Nov. 13 – Dec. 27 in the Kreeger Theater.

Johannah Easley, a 17-year-old Minneapolis native, plays the title role of Akeelah – a determined young girl who overcomes numerous challenges to compete at the Scripps National Spelling Bee. She stars opposite Broadway veteran James A. Williams, who originated the role of Roosevelt Hicks in August Wilson’s “Radio Golf,” and portrays Akeelah’s demanding coach Dr. Larabee.

For Johannah, whose performance in the Minneapolis world-premiere has been hailed by critics as “delightful and thoroughly engaging” and “effortless naturalism and poetic economy,” it’s the biggest role in her young career.

“In many ways I’m a lot like Akeelah – headstrong and prone to speak sometimes before I think about what I’m saying but of course I’m actually a bit older than the role calls for,” said Johannah, who first began acting 12 years ago.

“I’ve always wanted to act and to sing – I knew since I was a little girl that I wanted to be a performer,” she said. “Lately, the focus has been on acting. I was thrilled when I learned that I had been chosen for the part and I’ve had to really work hard. It’s not easy playing a girl that’s five or six years younger than you.”

Johannah, whose older brother has also been working on his own career in theater, said the toughest thing about preparing for the show, surprisingly, was giving up coffee.

“Caffeine dries out your vocal chords and because I have to speak in a higher-pitched voice than I normally speak, the director told me I had to eliminate caffeine from my diet – and I was a three- or four-cups-a-day consumer,” she said. “For a while I had headaches and found myself getting tired. But it was worth it.”

“I want to pursue a degree in musical theater and have applied to five colleges but if I get the chance to continue touring as Akeelah – well, that’s a decision I’ll have to make when the time comes. For now, I’m just thrilled to have this chance of a lifetime,” she said.

Williams, 63 and a native of St. Louis, said that in some ways, the story behind how he became an actor mirrors that of the fictitious Akeelah.

“I was enrolled in an Upward Bound Program at Washington University in St. Louis and walked into a theater class one day and wound up being cast for my first show – it was a life-changing experience,” said the actor who has been hard at his craft for 40 years.

“Being on that stage was the first time in my life that I ever got recognition for doing something and that positive feeling stuck with me,” he said. “I entered college not having a clue what I would study or do with my life. I eventually found a home in the theater department at McAllister College in St. Paul, Minnesota.”

“Then a friend of mine started a theater company. Before I knew it, an avocation [something done as a hobby or for pleasure] became a vocation. The best thing about being an actor – a Black actor specifically – has been having the chance to tell our stories our way,” he noted.

Wilson added that he realizes how blessed he has been in his long career, having had the opportunity to perform in all 10 plays written by the incomparable playwright August Wilson, a man who would not only serve as one of his greatest inspirations but as his friend.

“This play is about holding on to the power of your dreams and believing in yourself and in your community,” Williams said. “So many pictures of the Black community are negative. But we are better and stronger than that – this play reminds us of that.”

For tickets go to www.arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300.

D. Kevin McNeir – Senior Editor

Dominic Kevin McNeir is an award-winning journalist with more than 25 years of service for the Black Press (NNPA). Prior to moving East to assist his aging parents in their struggles with Alzheimer’s,...

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