'The Secret Life Of Bees' Becomes An Off-Broadway Musical Sue Monk Kidd's bestselling novel tells the story of a white girl taken in by a family of black beekeepers. The premise posed a welcome challenge for black Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage.
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'The Secret Life Of Bees' Takes On A 2nd Life As Musical Theater

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'The Secret Life Of Bees' Takes On A 2nd Life As Musical Theater

'The Secret Life Of Bees' Takes On A 2nd Life As Musical Theater

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"The Secret Life Of Bees," a novel by Sue Monk Kidd, spent more than two years on the bestseller list when it came out in 2002, the story of a troubled white girl taken in by three African American beekeepers in South Carolina during the civil rights era. The book was turned into a movie, and now it's an off-Broadway musical. Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: When two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage was approached about writing the script for a musical version of "The Secret Life Of Bees," she said yes but knew it wasn't going to be easy adapting a novel told in first person.

LYNN NOTTAGE: We were very hyper-aware that we didn't want to create a tale which it was just about a young white woman entering into this household and being nurtured by black women but that it was a tale about community. And so it was two young women both who have been scarred in different ways who need to be healed who find refuge amongst this hive of women.

LUNDEN: In the musical, as in the book, the two women are a teenaged white girl abused by her single father and her black caretaker, who's been beaten and jailed for trying to vote. The hive of women that takes them in are three sisters who are deeply spiritual but have their own issues.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Hold this house together.

LUNDEN: And though the musical takes some significant departures from the book, novelist Sue Monk Kidd says the adaptation captures the spirit of her story.

SUE MONK KIDD: I think it was a brilliant move to make this more of an ensemble kind of point of view so it becomes about all of them. And it becomes about the community. And a big theme I hope to bring out in the novel was that this community of women can be healing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Hold this house together. Hold this house together. Me and my sisters, we hold this house together. Hurt just one, you hurt us all, but we'll still be standing tall. Me, my sisters, all of y'all, hold this house together.

LUNDEN: The sisters are holding their house together in a time of great upheaval - 1964.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) On Thursday, the second of July, President Johnson signed the civil rights bill into law, calling on Americans to eliminate the last vestiges of injustice in America. Local activists vowed to test the new provisions.

SAM GOLD: I think we all felt like this book lent itself to having a conversation about race in America right now.

LUNDEN: Tony Award-winning director Sam Gold has staged the adaptation.

GOLD: You look back at 1964 and you think what's changed and you think what hasn't, and that's an inevitable part of making a show about 1964 and about civil rights.

LUNDEN: While Gold and the rest of the creative team were acutely aware of the challenges the book posed, they were also aware that their team only included one African American, Lynn Nottage. South Carolina-born composer Duncan Sheik, who collaborated on the score with lyricist Susan Birkenhead, says he questioned his role.

DUNCAN SHEIK: I said to myself, oh, maybe this is not my story to tell. I'm not from this community. I've witnessed it and been around it, but I'm not from this community.

EISA DAVIS: I'm glad that he had that concern. I really am.

LUNDEN: Eisa Davis plays one of the sisters.

DAVIS: That he was just trying to make sure that his writing in a variety of black musical idioms and genre would amount to something that was reverent. And I think it is. I think that rather than cultural appropriation, it's cultural appreciation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES")

DAVIS: (As June, singing) Who's going to win and who's going to lose? Yeah. Well, this girl here, she proud to be about to make some history. She signed her name...

LUNDEN: Actress Eisa Davis says her friends have had mixed reactions to the show, and her own response to the material is complicated.

DAVIS: I still have issues with part of how the play functions in that I think that it still is privileging a kind of white fragility and centering whiteness in a way that I think we are trying to dismantle right now in 2019.

LUNDEN: It was a criticism both the book and the movie received. But for playwright Lynn Nottage, that was actually something that drew her to the material.

NOTTAGE: There's this conversation around "Green Book" and "The Help" and stories of black folks sort of framed by a white author or a black journey that's seen through the white gaze. And I think one of the things that really attracted me to "The Secret Life Of Bees" and what makes this very different from those other stories is that this white girl enters into a black space, and she has to negotiate a space that's alien to her rather than the black body entering the white space.

LUNDEN: And that story, Nottage says, is something she's never told before. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) A world we never see, an ancient dance of give and take from bee to bee...

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