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When Rylee McGee auditioned for “Akeelah and the Bee” in February of 2020, she had no idea that it would take two years to make it to the stage. Rylee, who played Rhonda (Akeelah’s bully), and the rest of the cast had made it through most of the production time, learning their lines, blocking, costumes, nearly everything.

Then Covid hit. The world was in a state of fear; the cast and crew were in a state of despair. Working so hard to bring a production to the stage without ever having the chance to perform for an audience devastated everyone, especially with only two weeks to go until the show opened.

And then, what seemed the impossible happened: a second chance. In March of 2022, auditions were held for the show once again. Many cast members returned, but some could not.

Batty Ruth, played by Vanetta Powell, interacts with Georgia, aka Rylee McGee. – Credit: Michael Steinbach / Bach Photography

One role that needed to be filled was for Akeelah’s best friend, Georgia. Director Kara Ernst-Schalk asked Rylee to audition for the role. She did and was subsequently cast as this new character; and this time, as a friend, not a foe.

Through her new role as Georgia, Rylee gets to deliver some lines that will spark laughter, which is something that she looks forward to. A quiet, more introverted person in real life, Rylee said of her time performing, “on stage, I can be free.”

When she’s not encouraging Akeelah to keep moving forward in the spelling bee, 15-year-old Rylee attends St. Catherine’s High School as a freshman. Like Georgia, Rylee is a strong encourager of her friends. “I always want to support and be there for them; I’m always proud of them when they do anything good,” she said.

Like Daughter… Like Mother?

Last time around, Rylee was the only McGee in the audition pool. But this year, Rylee’s mom, Kimberly, decided to throw her hat in the ring as well. Hearing that they were in need of other roles to be filled, the Internal Auditor for Johnson Financial Group by day became Akeelah’s mom during the evenings.

Originally, Kimberly thought she would help out by filling a smaller role as a way to keep herself busy. Sadly, on the eve of this new year, Kimberly’s mother passed away. The family matriarch lived with Kimberly and her two daughters.

“She was the biggest ‘hype-man’ for the kids,” said Kimberly. Instead of a small, “something to keep me busy” role, Kimberly was offered the role of Gail, Akeelah’s mom.

Gail, played by Kimberly McGee has a special moment with her stage daughter, Akeelah, played by Saniah Carter. – Credit: Michael Steinbach / Bach Photography

“I’m honoring her by continuing first and foremost to press forward and then to step out and do something I haven’t really done,” she said of her own mother. “I think she would be very, very proud of us.”

Kimberly’s role as Akeelah’s mom wasn’t something too difficult for her to step into. Gail and Kimberly both “like to fuss,” but it’s always coming from a loving place. The role calls for someone who is very caring, and Kimberly fits the bill expertly.

One thing she had to watch out for in the beginning was when she was on stage with both her stage daughter and her real-life daughter. Training herself to look at Akeelah during those mother-daughter interactions, and not Georgia (Rylee), is something she can look back on and laugh at.

“Akeelah and the Bee” at RTG

Based on the popular 2006 film with a screenplay by Doug Atchison starring Keke Palmer, Angela Bassett, and Laurence Fishburne, the play has been adapted to the stage by Cheryl L. West.

Directed by Kara Ernst-Schalk, the cast features Saniah Carter as Akeelah, Kimberly McGee as Gail, Julian Mayfield as Reggie, Darius Russelle as Dr. Larabee, Diana Barber as Principal Welch, Rylee McGee as Georgia, Vanetta Powell as Batty Ruth, and Caroline E. Otto as Dylan. Additional cast members include Norgie Metzinger, Shavez DeLacy, Amina Jallow, Paolo Wood, Kyra Hagen, Winter Newell, AJ Garcia-Malacara, Pahoua Vang, Phil Lyden, Jennifer Arnold, and Megan Ferger.

Akeelah and the Bee

“Akeelah and the Bee” has been generously sponsored by SC Johnson. The show opens tomorrow night at 7 p.m. with the following schedule for this weekend:

Saturday 2 and 7 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets are $18 for adults, $16 for seniors (62+), and $13 for students (21 and under).

Masks are recommended and encouraged at performances. Tickets can be purchased from RTG by calling 262-633-4218, visiting www.racinetheatre.org, or stopping by the box office on weekdays from 12 to 6 p.m. and 90 minutes prior to each performance for tickets.

About the Story

Akeelah lives and breathes words and has a gift for spelling. This passion is overshadowed by the daily realities of her life in a tough Chicago neighborhood. Despite her mother’s objections, she studies and prepares for the National Spelling Bee with a determined spirit. As the underdog, Akeelah’s spunk and tenacity teach us all a little something about triumphing over any obstacle.


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