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Photo Flash: AKEELAH AND THE BEE’s Johannah Easley, Charles Randolph-Wright and More Celebrate Opening at Arena Stage

By: BWW News Desk
Photo Credit: Cameron Whitman
Link to original article: Broadway World

Fresh off its world-premiere run in Minneapolis, Children’s Theatre Company’s new production about an 11-year-old spelling prodigy comes to Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. The show is adapted for the stage by veteran playwright Cheryl L. West (Arena’s Pullman Porter Blues, Jar the Floor), who partners with celebrated director Charles Randolph-Wright (director of Broadway’s Motown and an inaugural resident playwright with Arena Stage, where he premiered his play Love in Afghanistan). AKEELAH AND THE BEE runs now through December 27, 2015 in the Kreeger Theater, and BroadwayWorld has photos from the opening night festivites at Arena Stage below!

Based on Doug Atchison’s 2006 inspirational family film, the heartwarming drama tells the story of Akeelah, a determined young girl who overcomes numerous challenges to compete at the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Leading the cast as Akeelah is Johannah Easley, who made a splash originating the role in Minneapolis, where her performance was hailed as “delightful and thoroughly engaging” (City Pages) and possessing “effortless naturalism and poetic economy” (Star Tribune). She stars opposite Broadway veteran James A. Williams (originated the role of Roosevelt Hicks in August Wilson’s Radio Golf), who continues in his role as her exacting coach Dr. Larabee.

Also reprising their roles from Minneapolis are Aimee K. Bryant as Gail (Akeelah’s mom), Nathan Barlow as Reggie (Akeelah’s brother), Zaria Graham as Georgia (Akeelah’s best friend) and Greta Oglseby as Batty Ruth (a neighbor), along with young actors Leo James as Javier/Chucky, Sean Phinney as Dylan and Molly Yeselson as Izzy/Snorting Girl/Crying Girl. The company also includes Darius Dotch as J.T./DJ Rule/Judge TV Announcer, Ana Christine Evans as Trish/Horse Girl/Mohawk Girl and Shavunda Horsley as Ratchet Rhonda/Foxy Fay. Tony Nam joins the company for the D.C. run as Dylan’s Dad/Pronouncer.

The creative team for AKEELAH AND THE BEE includes Scenic Designer Alexander V. Nichols, Costume Designer Jessica Jahn, Lighting Designer Michael Gilliam, Sound Designer Sten Severson, Composer Victor Zupanc, Dramaturg Elissa Adams, Assistant Costume Designer Sarah Bahr, Stage Manager Chris Schweiger and Assistant Stage Manager Jenny Brass.

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This Theater Director Will Have Two Major Plays Showing in DC at the Same Time

Charles Randolph-Wright directed ‘Akeelah and the Bee’ and ‘Motown the Musical.’

By Elizabeth Elving | October 28, 2015 Link to the article here

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The two shows have more than a director in common. Akeelah is based on the 2006 film about a girl from a public housing project whose brains and resilience lead her to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Motown is adapted from Berry Gordy’s book about his iconic record label, which helped launch the careers of artists like Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson. Randolph-Wright was drawn to these plays because they both send their characters on a boundary-crossing, hurdle-jumping journey to achieve their goals.

(L to R) Zaria Graham, Johannah Easley, Ana Christine Evans, Sean Phinney and Leo James 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.

(L to R) Zaria Graham, Johannah Easley, Ana Christine Evans, Sean Phinney and Leo James 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.

“Geography doesn’t limit your dream. Your neighborhood doesn’t limit your dream,” he says. “No matter where you are from, no matter who you are, color, etc. You can go after your dream. That’s what Berry Gordy did. That’s what Akeelah did.”

This message shows up often in Randolph-Wright’s work and is even reflected in his own life. He grew up in York, South Carolina and graduated from Duke University with a double major in theater and religion. He studied Shakespeare in London and dance in New York City, eventually getting an ensemble role in the original cast of Dreamgirls on Broadway. He has since built a prolific career directing and producing for theater, film, and television, where his credits including episodes of the ABC Family series Lincoln Heights and the Showtime series Linc’s. He’s a resident playwright at Arena Stage; in 2010, he directed Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies, which broke Arena’s box office record.

Though his resume covers a lot of ground, Randolph-Wright chooses his projects carefully. “There are a lot of things I turn down,” he says. “I don’t ever want to settle for some piece that’s not expressing the things that are on my mind. I do feel a responsibility as an artist to do the kind of work that I do.”

Reed L. Shannon as Michael Jackson (center) with the Jackson 5. Motown The Musical makes its Washington premiere at the National Theatre on December 1. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Reed L. Shannon as Michael Jackson (center) with the Jackson 5. Motown The Musical makes its Washington premiere at the National Theatre on December 1. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Part of that responsibility involves conveying to young people, especially young people of color, that they shouldn’t limit their ambitions. “I realize the importance of kids seeing people who look like them,” he says. “When they see that, they then have permission. They are enabled to go after something, to believe they can attain a certain dream.”

When Randolph-Wright goes to the theater, he’s often one of only a few people of color there. That imbalance is echoed in the stories told onstage. “Too often the people making the choices of shows pick the shows that relate to them,” he says. “And the people who are doing that don’t look like us.”

In recent years, television has made progress in diversifying its stories and casts, but Randolph-Wright says live theater, particularly on Broadway, hasn’t followed suit: “I believe that television is winning that game. We must do better in the theater, we must.” In that realm, however, Washington is performing better than New York. “The audience is a true mixture of people,” he says of DC theater. “You have every type of person. Every age, every color. That’s unique, unfortunately, in the world of theater.”

The title character of Akeelah and the Bee is African-American, and the cast features Latino, white, and Asian children. Motown the Musical celebrates the legacy of some of music’s most influential black artists. Randolph-Wright hopes that bringing these stories to DC stages will have a unifying effect. “It’s the nation’s capital,” he says. “We’re so divided in our country. I hope that politicians come and let go of their colors, their red and blue colors, for an instant. That’s what we have to focus on. What can we do together, as opposed to what do we do to keep us apart.”