Grand Rapids Civic Theatre (GRCT) presents Akeelah and the Bee, the heartwarming story of a young girl’s courage in the face of overwhelming odds, April 20 – 29.
GRCT chatted with Guest Director Dwandra Lampkin about taking on the project, her own acting career, and what this show represents.
GRCT: You are an actress yourself. Tell us about your background in the theater world.
DL: I started theater in high school and then decided to go to college and study it as well. I made the decision that this is what I wanted to do as a career. The odd thing is that I studied it in college but made a last minute switch to communications. My coursework felt so tech heavy and I wanted to focus on acting. I got my Bachelors of Arts in communications and went on to the National Theatre Conservatory and got my Masters of fine Arts in acting. Once I graduated, I moved to New York City to pursue my career as an actress. I did television, commercials, theater and film.
GRCT: What was the transition like from actor to teacher?
DL: I got a random call from a friend in Muncie, Indiana, who worked at Ball State. One of the professors in their theater department was going on sabbatical and asked me if I wanted to teach. I remember thinking, “Teach what? I don’t know how to teach. I am an actor.” She convinced me by saying it was just a nine-month commitment and that it might be a nice break from pounding the pavement in New York. One thing turned into another and my nine-month teaching experiment turned into eight years. People often get their master’s in acting because they know they’ll want to teach one day … that was the furthest thing from my mind. I went to graduate school to become a better actor, and never would have anticipated how many ways it would transform my life.
GRCT: What has this unexpected career in teaching taught you?
DL: Life changes quickly. I had no idea that teaching would become a part of my path, but it’s been quite fulfilling. Being an actor can be very self-serving a lot of the time. It’s all about getting the next job. As a teacher, I can actually pay it forward … I am able to help others who are on the same path that I once took. Teaching has just become another element of who I am as an artist.
GRCT: How has being a teacher informed your approach as an actress?
DL: In the process of becoming a better teacher, I’ve become a better actor. Teaching is the art of articulating “how to do something well.” I don’t know if I would be as good of an actor if I had stayed in New York. Teaching has changed my life as an artist … I see who I am as an actor in a completely different light.
GRCT: What brought you to Western Michigan University?
DL: I loved teaching at Ball State but the area itself lacked diversity. It was a huge adjustment, especially coming from New York. I looked around and didn’t see people like me. It’s important to feel represented in some way in the place that you live and it just wasn’t there. I loved the university but was ready for a change. Around that same time, a position opened up at Western. I was slightly hesitant to apply for the position, as I had gone to Western for my undergraduate degree and wasn’t sure that I wanted to move back to Michigan. However, life is full of twists and turns, and here I am—back at my Alma Mater. Things have truly come full circle.
GRCT: What is the heart of your work—whether that is acting, teaching or directing?
DL: The heart of my work always goes back to telling the stories of others. I commit to telling someone else’s truth, whether I’m on stage acting, on the other side directing, or in the classroom teaching. The question is always the same: WHAT and WHERE is the truth? How can we, as artists, connect to that truth and share it with audiences? If a project doesn’t provide me a way to implement that goal, then I’m not interested in doing it. It is that goal that fuels me as a teacher, director and actor.
GRCT: Tough question as an actor, but what has been your favorite role?
DL: I always go back to the most challenging role for me, which was Dreamgirls in college. Might sound strange, but it’s my favorite because it was the one that I struggled with the most. I played Effie. To be able to pull a role like that was difficult. To play a woman who has been through so much—and embody her—was delightfully challenging.
GRCT: Why Akeelah and the Bee?
DL: I don’t always jump at the opportunity to direct … I’m an actor first. But in talking with Allyson (Paris, Associate Director at Civic Theatre and co-director for Akeelah and the Bee), I realized this project was something bigger than myself. I thought, “Here is a theater that wants to commit a spot in their season to a show with a different perspective, both culturally and racially.” I not only wanted, but needed to be a part of that. There were definitely elements that could have kept me from doing this show: the commute to Grand Rapids five times a week, 14-hour days, exhaustion from my teaching schedule. However, I thought, “If GRCT is making this commitment, how can I not?”
GRCT: You mentioned committing a spot in our season to this show. Why is that important to you?
DL: Shows like Akeelah and the Bee broaden an audience’s perspective. It’s so easy for us to get lost in this idea that no one has to struggle because of how much “progress” has been made. In reality, there is still an imbalance that exists. It’s easy to take things for granted in our own lives but in the process forget that not everyone is given the same opportunities. You could easily sum this play up as a “story about a spelling bee;” however, every story has layers that, when peeled back, we discover there’s more than meets the eye.
GRCT: For people how aren’t familiar with Akeelah and the Bee, what do you think they need to know about it?
DL: I think it’s important that people allow themselves to connect to the universal theme of the story, but more importantly, the adversity as well. It’s powerful when a play makes you remove the rose-colored glasses and allows you to embrace the struggle and conflict unfolding in front of you. The goal of theater isn’t always to entertain or leave you feeling happy. It is meant to make you feel things … but not just one thing. Many!
Courtesy of Grand Rapids Civic Theatre. To learn more about Akeelah and the Bee and to purchase tickets, visit grct.org.