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“Merovingian.” That’s the single spelling bee word from the Arena Stage adaptation of Akeelah and the Bee that I know I could spell without a tutor. I could even use it in a sentence without a prompt: The Merovingian Dynasty ruled over Frankish Gaul for 300 years in the wake of the Roman Empire. But if I were competing in the bee, I would have been cut as soon as I got handed any other word.
That’s the allure of the spelling bee: Unlike bowling or bridge or badminton or almost any other competitive endeavor, spelling is something that just about everyone does as a matter of course. We feel a little bad that we aren’t better spellers. Our misspellings are exposed less and less these days, thanks to autocorrect, but it used to matter. A lot of us will remember the word that stung us in a pivotal grade-school spelling bee (“rheumatism”).
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For Akeelah Anderson, that word is “xanthosis,” a disease like jaundice, from the ancient Greek “xantho” (meaning yellow) and “osis” (meaning condition). She has to master that word and many more to make it to nationals, where she will face spelling champions.
Akeelah and the Bee gets the tension of a spelling bee just right, even if the story is an uneasy fit for the stage. An adaptation of the 2006 film written and directed by Doug Atchison, the Arena Stage production follows Akeelah (the charming Johannah Easley), a young black girl who doesn’t share the privileged backgrounds of most other bee competitors, but who has a small community of friends and family supporting her.
There’s Akeelah’s brother, Reggie (Nathan Barlow), who feels the lure of the power and money in the drug trade; her mother, Gail (Aimee K. Bryant), who struggles as a single parent to provide for her children; and her tutor, Dr. Larabee (James A. Williams), a prickly professor who sees Akeelah’s talent but also sees in her too much of his own daughter, who has died. The rest of the characters are there for comic relief. Charles Randolph-Wright has directed such a feel-good production that the conflicts in the story—race, class, education, justice—mostly fall away.
The tone is so light and cheery, in fact, that it’s a sincere surprise that no one ever breaks out in song (though Larabee could single-handedly balance out the comedy with gravity if he were able to explore and channel his grief). Javier (Leo James) and Trish (Ana Christine Evans), Akeelah’s spelling-bee friends from the more priviledged side of town, would have made an adorable duo on a comedy number. (He’s chipper; she lisps.) There are more laughs to squeeze out of the flirty relationship between the nosey, righteous aunty-neighbor, Batty Ruth (Greta Oglesby), and the soused, scrubby superintendent, Drunk Willie (Milton Craig Nealy). And the world deserves to see a fun playground rap by Ratchet Rhonda (Shavunda Horsley), the ditzy neighborhood bully who’s constantly teasing Akeelah. At least she gets to whip and nae nae.
What Akeelah and the Bee needs isn’t so much song as motion—something to channel all the joyfulness of the performances. The casting is fresh and delightful, and even the smallest roles shine, despite the fact that the characters are such simple sketches. The conflicts are one-dimensional, and they all resolve too neatly. Akeelah and the Bee feels a bit like a family-friendly sitcom, one you might expect to have a laugh track, like Full House or Family Matters. Steve Urkel would’ve fit right in.
In fact, by the end of it, the audience was cheering when a kid aces a tough word and woooo-ing when a character steals a kiss. In that sense, Akeelah and the Bee actually does have a laugh track. What it needed was a stirring soundtrack—or some larger device beyond sheer cheer to distinguish it as something that truly belongs on stage, not on the Disney Channel.
1101 6th St. SW. $55–$90. (202) 488-3300.arenastage.org.