All 14-year-old Varland Owens had to do was read the book, and she knew she wanted to be a part of New Venture Theatre’s production of “The Secret Life of Bees.”
The young actress is always looking for new challenges but wasn’t familiar with the story.
“The book is beautiful,” Owens says, “and I knew I wanted to audition for this show.”
Owens won the lead of Lily, also 14, but with a much different life from the actress playing her.
Owens is a freshman at Baton Rouge Magnet High School planning a career in psychology. Lily escapes her father’s abusive household and settles in with three elderly bee-farming Boatwright sisters in South Carolina, where she learns lessons about life.
“Lily is white, and the three sisters are black,” says director Clarence “Caiden” Crockett. “But the three sisters teach her about what it is to be a woman. They also teach her about business.”
The production, which opens Thursday, April 23, is New Venture’s second in the 2015 season. It’s small, but Crockett says it’s perfect for the Hartley/Vey stage at the Shaw Center for the Arts.
“It’s a show where the audience will connect with the characters, and the intimacy of the Hartley/Vey space is perfect for that,” Crockett says. “It’s a powerful story.”
Sue Monk Kidd’s 2002 novel was adapted into the 2008 film starring Dakota Fanning as Lily and Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys and Sophie Okonedo as the Boatwright sisters.
But Owens made a point not to watch the movie before developing her role as Lily, opting to stick to the spirit of the book.
“But I had trouble with it at first, because a lot of what’s going on at the beginning of the book is going on in Lily’s head,” Owens says. “You’re reading what she’s thinking, but I think she’s trying to fake it and hide her sadness from everyone.”
The story is set in 1964. Lily’s mother has died, and she eventually runs away to Tiburon, South Carolina, with her housekeeper-turned-surrogate mother Rosaleen.
The city was stamped on the back of an image of a black Virgin Mary that belonged to Lily’s mother. While eating lunch in Tiburon’s general store, Lily discovers the same Virgin Mary image on the side of a honey jar, which leads her and Rosaleen to the Boatwrights, who invite Lily and Rosaleen to stay with them.
That’s where Lily not only learns about life, but experiences starcrossed love and learns the secret behind her mother’s death. And guiding her along the way is the oldest and wisest sister, August Boatwright, played by New Venture veteran Dorrian Wilson.
Wilson has played the role of older women in the past and often develops her characters by referencing the older people in her own life.
“I’d seen the movie, so Queen Latifah was the only reference I would have had for this character, and I didn’t want to play August the way she did it,” Wilson says. “August is the most influential among the sisters, and the honey business is hers. She not only takes care of her sisters, but has taken care of other people who have come into their home through the years. I thought of my mother, who is in her 60s — which is old but not elderly — and I realized that wisdom can also come from energy. That’s how I wanted August to be.”
Wilson teaches talented theater for the East Baton Rouge School System and is New Venture Theatre’s education director. She says she would like her character in real life, just as Owens believes she would befriend Lily.
“I really believe I would get along with her,” Owens says. “I like to help people, to build people up. I’d like to be her friend and let her know that she’s OK. I loved her in the book, and I love playing her on stage.”