LaChanze, Jai’Len Christine Li Josey, Vita E.
Cleveland, Elizabeth Teeter and Romelda Teron Benjamin
Life of Bees
By Fern Siegel
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.