Anjaneé Canady and James Hawkins in “Akeelah and the Bee” (Jim Vaiknoras courtesy of The Coterie Theatre)
Akeelah and the Bee was adapted for the stage by Cheryl L. West in 2015, based on the hit 2006 film starring Keke Palmer, Laurence Fishburne, and Angela Bassett. With their version, the Coterie Theatre takes West’s two-plus-hour play and trims it down to a sparse 70 minutes. What is left is not entirely full of nuance, but the most heartwarming and inspiring elements remain intact.
The play tells the story of the titular Akeelah, a soft-spoken, insecure, but brilliant 11-year-old from the South Side of Chicago. Akeelah (Anjaneé Canady) gained a passion for spelling from her deceased father and after being thrust into a school spelling bee by an overzealous principal, she finds her talent reluctantly nurtured by local former bee star Dr. Larabee (Walter Coppage). Coppage is exceedingly charming in his role as Akeelah’s conflicted tutor, letting a quiet humor and deep warmth seep through his strict, stodgy exterior.
In their abridged version of this modern classic, Coterie has made the intriguing decision to fill the young cast with actual teenagers—and even pre-teens, by the look of it, especially in understudy roles. This leads to a less polished finished product than audiences might be used to, but there is a palpable raw energy that young viewers especially are likely to connect with. The show comes with a recommendation for kids nine and up, but from my own experience opening weekend, the younger audience members seemed to be the ones getting the most out of the show, which paints its themes in enthusiastic but broad strokes.
As with so many of their shows, Coterie manages to pack a lot into 70 minutes. Director Teresa Leggard keeps the momentum driving forward and they move briskly through the narrative. The tense excitement of the bees and the art of spelling itself grips the audience as tightly as any cutthroat sports story. Scenic designer Kelli Harrod has created the perfect backdrop with a set that’s teeming with energy. Painted with a mix of images that are representational of Akeelah’s physical life as well as pages of notebooks filled with vocabulary words, the set makes us feel like we’ve gained entry into Akeelah’s mind and her whole life.
In the end, Coterie’s abridged Akeelah and the Bee is a heartfelt celebration of a young girl’s mind. Younger audiences especially are likely to find it inspiring and delightful.
“Akeelah and the Bee” runs through October 16 at the Coterie Theatre, 2450 Grand Blvd. For more information, call 816-474-6552 or visit www.thecoterie.org.