Inside the 'Secret Life of Bees' Musical Workshop Starring Uzo Aduba

The Secret Life of Bees Production Still Uzo Aduba and Sophia Anne Caruso - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Buck Lewis

The 'Orange Is the New Black' star talks to THR about playing the beloved Rosaleen in the new stage adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd's novel.

Uzo Aduba and Duncan Sheik have just spent the last several weeks collaborating on new musicals. First, they did a workshop of Alice by Heart, an Alice in Wonderland adaptation by Steven Sater and Sheik. And on Sunday, they finished a two-week developmental process and presentation of The Secret Life of Beesa new musical adaptation of the novel by Sue Monk Kidd with book by Lynn Nottage, lyrics by Susan Birkenhead and music by Sheik — at Vassar and New York Stage and Film's Powerhouse season. It's particularly sweet for Aduba to be reuniting with Sheik, as he was one of the first people to give her a chance when she was just starting out.

"When you're trying to find your voice as an artist and a singer and a musician, time after time he has given me an opportunity to be a part of his space and his world, and you appreciate that — especially when you don't know your space and you're just finding it," Aduba told The Hollywood Reporter. "I forever have said, 'I will follow you anywhere.'"

Secret Life of Bees marks their fourth project together, and looking back on the first show they did in 2011, a short play by Sater called Mrs. Jones and the Man From Dixieland, Sheik is impressed by how far the Emmy-winning actress (Orange Is the New Black) has come. "The truth is she's always had this massive big sound that she can create, which is really, really awesome. It's this great instrument to be able to implement in the show, it's so much fun to hear someone open their mouth and have this huge sound come out of it," he said. "She's obviously had huge success in TV, but she wants to do theater, and that's awesome for us."

In Secret Life of Bees, Aduba played Rosaleen, the caretaker to 14-year-old Lily Owens in 1964 South Carolina. The pair flee from Lily's father in search of the truth about her mother's death, taking up residence with the mysterious Boatwright sisters. The workshop, which was directed by Sam Gold, also starred Sophia Anne Caruso as Lily, Kecia Lewis as August, Eisa Davis as June and Allison Blackwell as May. Sheik grew up in South Carolina, and although he hadn't read the book or seen the 2008 movie when the producers asked him to work on the show, he instinctively knew the world.

"I understood that environment and the humidity of that and the texture of that world just innately in my bones, having spent most of my childhood there," Sheik explained. "This could be really cool to do something where you're playing around with grassroots music and then playing around with mid-'60s R&B, and there's this other component of spiritual, mystical, magical music that derives from the syncretic religion of the Daughters of Mary. There's a really interesting sonic palette and things to draw from."

One of his favorite aspects of the music is the horn orchestrations he worked on with John Clancy. When Sheik first heard the arrangements in rehearsal, he remembers, everyone ran around the theater with pure joy. "That's why I do what I do," he said.

Secret Life of Bees also marks the second time Aduba and Sheik have worked together at New York Stage and Film, with the first time being in 2011 on The Nightingale. "I live for theater camps!" said the actress. "I love the experience of taking something outside of the city where art is made and where sometimes people approach it with arms crossed or an expectation of something that doesn't have anything to with why we as artists are here. I like the experience of coming here and letting the voice of the creators be the only mission."

Sheik said the creative team is already planning the next steps for the musical, and while Aduba is back shooting Orange ("This was, like, providential!" she said, as she started production on the Netflix series the day after the last performance of Secret Life of Bees), the actress said that she'd love to continue with the project if given the opportunity.

"You would think this has been something we've been doing for longer than two weeks. I love everyone in the cast, but specific to the women in this show and this creative team, it has been just a delight," Aduba said, noting that Nottage hosted a wine-and-cheese night during the first week of rehearsals. "We go home and we just yip yap like hens staying up 'til one or two in the morning when we have no business doing that — we should be sleeping! We like to genuinely be around each other, which is something obviously on [Orange] we have that experience. It was magic and wonderful and loving and kind and invested, and I would of course love to be a part of something like that if it were to come to life again, because that's why I do what I do."