From Assistant Director/Dramaturg Mike Fischer – BIG RIVER: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

1:37 PM

William Faulkner called him “the first truly American writer.”  Ernest Hemingway described “Huck Finn,” his masterpiece, as the book from which “all modern American literature comes.”  And that novel is the source for BIG RIVER, a new TYA adaptation of the Tony-winning musical. It’s being mounted by First Stage from March 15 – April 14 under the direction of Marti Gobel.

One of the best appraisals of why “Huck Finn” matters comes from pioneering black comedian Dick Gregory, who described Mark Twain as “so far ahead of his time that he shouldn’t even be talked about on the same day as other people.” Writing of “Huck Finn,” Gregory noted that “for the first time in the history of literature a White man talked about a relationship between a Black man and a White Boy.”

But despite the chorus of Black critics and writers who’ve praised “Huck Finn” and Twain for their landmark antiracism – including not only Gregory but also Booker T. Washington, Sterling Brown, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Richard Pryor, Ralph Wiley, Amiri Baraka and Toni Morrison – the novel’s frequent use of racial slurs has resulted in it being banned from some libraries and classrooms, even though it remains one of the most taught novels in American high schools.   

Himself a fierce and penetrating critic of racism in America, Twain inserted racial slurs into his text to expose the ignorance and racism of those who used them, and “Huck Finn” remains one of this country’s great anti-racist novels. That said, Twain’s satiric nuances can be readily lost by young audience members, who won’t necessarily have the context to grasp why and how such words are being used to unmask the ignorance of those who use them.

Consequently, the TYA version of BIG RIVER removes the racial slurs found in the Broadway version and in Twain’s novel. It also further underscores the moral authority of a runaway slave like Jim and a young slave named Alice; in this new version, it is Alice rather than Huck who introduces and frames the story to be told.  In telling that story, our focus will be on the growing friendship between Huck and Jim, who drift down the Mississippi toward slavery while finding freedom, as their love overcomes the hatred that threatens to drown them. 

In his brilliant book “Huck Finn’s America,” Andrew Levy writes that “we keep the book around because we know, deep down, that it speaks some ornery truth we can’t say in the open.  But we need new resources, and new sensibilities, to help us learn to read it again.” With its production of BIG RIVER, First Stage once again offers all of us the opportunity to read an old story in a new way – preserving what’s best about our traditions while seeing them fresh. We hope you’ll consider joining us for this epic journey into the heart of America.

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