For Email Marketing you can trust

The Secret Life of Bees

Macintosh HD:Users:fernsiegel:Desktop:Bees-1.png

LaChanze, Jai’Len Christine Li Josey, Vita E. Cleveland, Elizabeth Teeter and Romelda Teron Benjamin

Photo: Ahron R. Foster



The Secret Life of Bees


                                  By Fern Siegel


“Some folks are born on the wrong side of right,” Rosaleen (Saycon Sengbloh) explains to teenage Lily (Elizabeth Teeter), the white daughter of an abusive father. The same applies to her. She’s a black woman in 1964 South Carolina who is beaten for trying to register to vote.


Mistreated and misunderstood, the two escape their small-town tormentors and find sanctuary at a bee farm run by the Boatwright sisters: fragile, sorrowful May (Anastacia McCleskey), tough-as-nails June (Eisa Davis) and wise, caring August (LaChanze). Themes of death and female empowerment permeate this singular production.


Now at the Linda Gross Theater, the essence of The Secret Life of Bees, the musical adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s 2002 novel, is beautifully realized. Arriving at the apiary isn’t by chance; it’s part of a larger journey. Lily yearns for the mother she has never known. All she has left of her is a card of the Black Madonna and the name of another South Carolina town, Tiburon, scrawled on back. Lily feels it holds the key to her troubled past — and she’s right. But it’s also the setting for awakenings both liberating and frightening. 


Lily is weighted down by guilt. As a toddler, she was blamed for the death of her mother. At the same time, she confronts her feelings for Zachary (Brett Gray), a black teen who works for the Boatwrights. That alliance is dangerous in the Jim Crow South. Their unlikely friendship, coupled with her quest to discover the truth about her mother, will impact everyone in profound ways.


What Lily doesn’t yet know are the secrets the Boatwrights hold, a pivotal point in ensuring the story comes full circle. Nor do she and Rosaleen realize that healing comes from understanding, time and vindication. Their turmoil, en route to emotional freedom, is understood through music.


Duncan Sheik’s pop-bluegrass-African-inflected score and Susan Birkenhead’s emotion-filled songs give a soulful spin to various conflicts, both internal and external. Director Sam Gold arranges the versatile musicians on both sides of the stage, embracing his excellent cast.


Musical remakes of novels are always tricky. The leisurely pace of a 200+-page book provides time for depth and back-stories. Here, the essence of the musical, with book by Lynn Nottage, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Sweat, is more compact. The drama is encapsulated into a suffering dichotomy: societal and personal.


Rosaleen is the victim of a cruel racism that allows white Southerners to degrade blacks with impunity. That reality is all too familiar to the Boatwrights and Zachary. Though LBJ has signed the Civil Rights Act, enforcing the law in the South will result in bloodshed. Conversely, Lily feels inconsolable guilt over her mother’s demise.


Macintosh HD:Users:fernsiegel:Desktop:The Secret Life of Bees cast.png

The Secret Life of Bees cast. Photo: Ahron R. Foster


There is a second division here: the difference between the educated and uneducated. The college-educated Boatwright women and June’s suitor, high-school principal Neil (Nathaniel Stampley), outclass the ignorant whites, typified by Lily’s snarling father T-Ray (Chris Stack). They also kick-start Rosaleen’s insecurities, though August, earth mother to all, encourages her to find her own voice.


Rosaleen’s voice is evident in the rousing anthem “Sign My Name,” expressing her fervent desire to vote. She also comes to see herself as more than Lily’s caretaker when she sings: “You bleedin’ some? Well, I am, too / It ain’t always all about you,” which pries open their joint consciousness. Much like “Our Lady of Chains,” a moment of religious fervor by the company, it is dramatically delivered.


Both scenes underscore the enormous spirit of these women, as well as the pain and longing they carry. And that’s part of Bees’ larger point: We find solace in community, but we also need to discover who and what we are.


To focus on the characters’ inner lives, Mimi Lien’s set design is spare; consisting of flowers and candles, blocks of hives and a driftwood statue of the Black Madonna, a source of comfort and worship for the Boatwrights. Jane Cox’s rich, warm lighting augments it.


As August, LaChanze exudes a practical wisdom that navigates even terrifying situations with dignity. Davis’ June is a study in uncompromising refusal to bend, either to marriage proposals or the realities of Southern life. McCleskey’s May is unbearably sensitive to the world’s transgressions. Sengbloh’s Rosaleen is a study in growth and determination. Her story is every bit as compelling as Lily’s. Together, each actress perfectly captures the specificity of character.


Similarly, Teeter’s Lily is lovely. She is honest about her insecurities and troubled life, while Gray’s Zachary is a perfect counterpoint; he has purpose and a notable physical presence. 


The Secret Life of Bees captures a problematic time and place in American life. But this memorable musical also celebrates people who champion decency and humanity, rather than succumb to fear and indifference.


The Secret Life of Bees, Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20 St.

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes, through July 21.