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Akeelah and the Bee playwright Cheryl West in conversation
Playwright Cheryl West spoke with Elissa Adams, Director of New Play Development at CTC, about her adaptation of Akeelah and the Bee.
Elissa: The film Akeelah and the Bee is set in Los Angeles. You chose to set the play in Chicago. Why?
Cheryl: Los Angeles is a very sprawling, horizontal city, which is great for a movie because you can move from location to location, but I really wanted to see the whole of Akeelah's neighborhood onstage. Chicago is a very vertical city, full of apartment buildings where people live in close proximity to each other. It's congested, clamorous, and chaotic. At the start of the play, Akeelah doesn't appreciate her neighborhood. She doesn't feel safe. Unfortunately, this is true for many children who live in Chicago today. Chicago is considered the murder capitol of the country right now. More than 200 murders have happened there just this year. More than 1700 people have been shot and wounded to date. Imagine hearing gun shots constantly, what that must do to a child’s psyche and how that must contribute to children like Akeelah feeling under siege in their own neighborhoods. At the same time, I spent part of my childhood living in Chicago in a neighborhood not unlike Akeelah's and one of my strongest memories is that there were always adults around watching out for us kids. Neighbors, teachers, mentors who said, through their actions and their care, "I see you. I'm going to help you be your best, glorious self." I know those people are still in neighborhoods in Chicago, in Minneapolis, everywhere, and that's what helps children not only survive but thrive.
Elissa: Are there aspects of Akeelah that remind you of yourself when you were Akeelah's age?
Cheryl: I come from a family where education was so valued. Having good grades, being well-spoken, was a sign of family pride. My grandparents had little education but were wise beyond measure. Yet they knew education was the ticket to empowerment and a way to continue the legacy of the family. I was a good student and the message was always, “keep going!" And yet, like Akeelah, there was a period of time when I retreated from the gift of my intelligence and my love of books and learning. In 6th grade, I moved to a new school in the middle of the school year, which is never easy! On the first day, the teacher asked me to read aloud in front of everyone. I took great pride in being a good reader and I remember feeling proud that I hadn't stumbled. But, at recess that day, while I was standing there hoping someone would ask me to play, a boy kicked me in the back and said, “that's what you get for thinking you're smarter than everyone." In the play, Akeelah can be snappy, angry, and sometimes unreasonable. I think this comes from being afraid to let her light shine and her gifts show. Over the course of the play, with help from people who believe in her – like Principal Welch, Dr. Larabee, her friends Georgia and Javier, her brother Reggie – Akeelah learns to let that light shine and, in doing so, helps everyone around her to let their lights shine, too.
Cheryl: Can I tell you an African saying that keeps coming to me as I think about this play?
Elissa: Yes! Please do!
Cheryl: "If you want to preserve knowledge and enable it to travel through time, entrust it to children."