A review of Book-It Rep’s “Little Bee,” based on a best-selling novel about an intrepid young African asylum-seeker in England.
Kofi Annan, former head of the United Nations, urged the world to “celebrate the extraordinary courage and contributions of refugees past and present.”
In Chris Cleave’s book “Little Bee,” a plucky Nigerian teenager escapes a massacre in her native village and other horrors and makes her way to Great Britain. But there’s no parade awaiting, only dismal incarceration in a government-detention center for undocumented immigrants, and general public disdain for her plight as a desperate asylum-seeker.
Heartless indifference threads through Cleave’s international best-seller and the heartfelt new Book-It Repertory Company stage version of it. The several spurts of graphic, savage violence are essential to this moral-alarm bell of a story.
By Chris Cleave, adapted by Myra Platt. Book-It Repertory Company, through May 17 at Center House Theatre, Seattle Center; $25 (206-216-0833 or book-it.org).
What keeps “Little Bee” buoyant, and less of a downer than the plot outline might suggest, is the title character. The self-renamed Little Bee (beautifully portrayed by a radiant, watchful Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako) has survived tragedies that could crush most of us to dust.
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Her sharp powers of perception and resilience have saved this girl, but also her delight in beauty and her keen wit as she tries to blend into an alien culture. “Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl,” she tells us. “Everyone would be pleased to see me coming.”
Little Bee’s dramatic narrative dominates in adapter-director Myra Platt’s stage treatment, which interweaves African back stories with misadventures in England.
The tale’s other narrator is Sarah (Sydney Andrews), Little Bee’s socioeconomic opposite. The editor of a glossy fashion magazine, Sarah has a depressed Irish husband (Eric Riedmann, in a compelling turn), a young son obsessed with Batman (talented young Jonah Kowal) and a repellent married lover (Michael Patten, who excels in several guises).
Sarah also has a disturbing tie to Little Bee. They met earlier on an African beach as (unequal) victims of the brutal national strife over Nigeria’s rich oil reserves. (For more on that war, see Book-It’s informative program.)
Once Little Bee turns up on Sarah’s doorstep, the contrast between a refugee’s reality and that of upscale, shallow Londoners is underscored, with oversimplification. Among her peers, could Sarah be the only Brit with any liberal guilt? Any desire to alleviate the suffering and mistreatment of an innocent survivor?
“Little Bee” is most affecting during the first two of three parts, as we get to know both protagonists and the past and pressures weighing on them. In the third section, a breathless string of events, some very contrived, rushes us to the conclusion. It’s hard to believe, for instance, how quickly Sarah and Little Bee become bold, heroic truth-seekers, with stunning disregard for their own safety (and others’).
This is largely a fault of the novel, which Book-It remains faithful to — except, arguably, in the ambiguous final moment, which is a half-shade darker in the book.
In this second-to-last production of Book-It’s 25th season, Platt and the actors (including other standouts Kaila Towers and Elena Flory-Barnes) achieve the fidelity and continuity of a unique theatrical style Book-It has perfected over time.
The take-away here is not so much the didactic aspect of the piece, but the image of a fully realized character. Little Bee’s individual humanity makes a bit more real to us the plight of those who are persecuted and stateless everywhere.
Note: This story was posted and corrected April 27, 2015. An earlier version incorrectly stated that this is the final production of Book-It’s season.