“We were just talking about this,” playwright Cheryl L. West tells me over the phone. “I’m one of the most produced contemporary playwrights at Arena Stage.” West received the Charles MacArthur Award for the Arena production of Before It Hits Home back in 1992, and now thinks of the theatre’s glass enclosed building as a second home. While keeping details quiet, she also mentioned that she has a new Arena commission coming up.
Mostly, though, West was eager to talk about Akeelah and the Bee, playing through December 27. An adaptation of the film of the same name, the play was first produced at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis. It tells the story of a pre-teen from the Chicago projects who becomes a finalist in the National Spelling Bee. West was happy with the experience in Minneapolis but is eager to build on lessons learned. In the first production, she said, “we were able to see the world and learn things." However, as with most first productions, she also admitted “we ran out of time.”
Having this second chance to work with the same creative team, including director Charles Randolph-Wright, allows the play to regain that lost time. Plus, West is able to take the play's themes further than she was in a children’s theatre environment. The Children’s Theatre Company production had to be made “appealing to younger kids,” she explains. At Arena, she’s excited to play to a wider range of ages and to make the play, as she says, “a little bit grittier.”
With timely concerns about inequity in urban environments and the continuing threat of violence, West felt the original production was not what she called “on point” with the current moment. She sees this production as an opportunity for families to see the show and use it as a starting point for discussions about key issues.
The play tells the story of young Akeelah, who lost her father to gun violence. With the support of her community - and a professor with his own tale of grief – Akeelah rises through the ranks of the National Spelling Bee. West describes the work as “a tale of redemption and resilience in an environment that is challenging.” In a community like DC, where many parents can afford to bring their families to the theatre, she finds it important to show the alternative - a parallel track she describes as a “kind of world where many of our children are under siege.”
In addition to the returning creative team, West is happy to continue working with the same cast. The actors, apart from two, have been involved in the development of the production from the beginning. It was an easy transition into the new theatre space, with minimal set changes to accommodate the shallower stage. Arena’s Kreeger Theatre allows for precisely the intimate atmosphere that West is seeking in her eagerness to connect more deeply with her audiences.
For the playwright, being at Arena is the answer to the eternal question, which she says is, “How do we keep going? How do we get supported?” Luckily, Artistic Director Molly Smith understands the problem. “It’s great when you have theatres committed to you,” West says, noting the importance of a company that is willing to embrace not just a second production but the chance to keep the creative process alive through that production, when critical growth can occur. “Molly,” says West, “wants the artist to have time to do the work they want to do. She gives the space to do that.”
Catch Akeelah and the Bee at Arena Stage through December 27.