Photo courtesy of Dan Norman.

Akeelah and the Bee is running at Arena Stage from Nov. 13 to Dec. 27. SWNA’s Katelynd Mahoney was lucky enough to interview Molly Yeselson, who plays the role of Izzy/Snorting Girl/Crying Girl. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What are you most excited about in your roles?

A: I’m most excited that this show features characters of color just being people who go about their lives. The fact that the show exists is exciting. We’re so used to seeing shows with a ton of white people and then the token person of color. How often does it happen that we flip that ratio on its head and have 13 out of the 14 actors in this show be people of color? I find it so exciting to be playing characters where my race isn’t what defines me; where my identity is so much more than the color of my skin.

Q: How does the play differ from the 2006 movie of the same name? 

A: Well to start, Cheryl (the playwright) moved the setting of our show from Los Angeles to Chicago. Moving the play to Chicago really changed the dynamic. Our play feels busier than the movie, since Akeelah now lives in a neighborhood where everyone knows about everyone else’s business. Characters changed a lot from the movie, since Cheryl added some characters (such as the characters I play) and then took out and combined other characters. Though, I feel as if the biggest difference from the movie is that we’re able to make the audience experience the events in Akeelah in the first person. For example, the way the show is staged, audiences feel like they’re actually at the various spelling bees!

Q: What inspired you to try out for a role in the production?

A: I actually had no idea about the project until I got a phone call from Amelia Powell asking me if I’d like to come in and audition for the role of Izzy. (Amelia is the casting director at Arena Stage.) I immediately accepted the opportunity to audition for a couple of reasons: Akeelah was one of my absolute favorite movies as a kid. We owned it on DVD and I probably watched it once every few weeks. So, the idea of being in the world premiere adaption of Akeelah was appealing enough already! I guess I was also inspired to audition, since I love Arena Stage. Arena has put on some of the most moving pieces of theater I’ve seen and the idea of being able to potentially give other people the same magical experience of live theater was a huge inspiration for my decision to audition.

Q: You play more than one role in the production. How did you prepare? What was the biggest challenge? What was the biggest surprise?

A: My characters don’t talk a ton in the show, but my track is very blocking heavy. That means I have to constantly know when and where I need to be within the show. Most of my preparation included color-coding my script and making spreadsheets. All of this proved very helpful when we got into tech at Children’s Theatre Company. For example: Let’s say that our amazing stage manager, Chris, said, “Okay, we’re starting with Akeelah’s line on the top of page 32.” I could quickly glance down at my script and see what color Post-it Note was on that page. From the Post-it Note, I’d know exactly where I needed to be, what I needed to be wearing, what props I needed, and when my entrance/exit was.

The biggest challenge for me was the fact that we were making huge changes in the show throughout the rehearsal process into tech and previews. Scenes and lines were cut, added back into the show, moved to a different act in the show! It was crazy trying to remember what the most recent version of our show was and we even got new words for the spelling bees three hours before opening night!

The biggest surprise by far was how amazing it was to work with this cast. Of course people get on each other’s nerves sometimes (like in any family), but over the 11 weeks in Minneapolis, the whole cast became really close. A couple of the actors from Minneapolis couldn’t join us for the second leg of our journey here at Arena and it was really a bittersweet day when we had to say goodbye.

Q: What is your favorite part of the play? What do you think the audience will most enjoy?

A: My favorite parts of the play are the different spelling bees and I think the audience will enjoy them the most, as well. The energy is great in the bees and the bees have some of the funniest moments in the show. I can’t give too much away, but I’d say the bees are also pretty cool if you’re into techy things.

Q: You are an alum of Camp Arena Stage, how does it feel to come back this time in a production? 

A: It’s so amazing to come back to Arena and be in Akeelah. I loved my time at Camp Arena Stage and then being a part of Voices of Now. Both were incredibly meaningful experiences that helped me form connections here at Arena. When I found out that the Akeelah audition was going to be in the classroom where I did Voices of Now, I felt instantly more relaxed and confident. I’ve seen a lot of shows at Arena that touched me in various ways, such as The Blood Quilt and Dear Evan Hansen. Both shows happened to be in the Kreeger Theater (where Akeelah will play) and as I sat there soaking up the amazing work of the artists onstage and off, I realized that I’m going to have the same opportunity to touch peoples’ lives. Theater can make such a difference and I’m extremely grateful to have the chance to change people’s perceptions of themselves and the world around them.

Q: Akeelah has to overcome numerous challenges. What would you say to the kids who are seeing the production to help them overcome their own challenges?

A: Be an advocate for yourself. Speak up when you need help. Other people can only help you when you tell them that you’re struggling. Akeelah only begins to succeed when she tells the truth about how she’s feeling.

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