Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” has been a controversial story since its publication in 1884. The 366-page novel focuses on the journey of Huck and Jim, a boy and an escaped slave, on a raft down the Mississippi River; race and identity are among its major themes.
In 1985, the novel went from page to Broadway stage in the form of playwright William Hauptman’s Tony Award-winning musical, “Huckleberry Finn’s Big River.” It featured 20-plus original songs.
Adventure Theatre MTC (ATMTC), in co-production with The Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma, decided to revise the piece to include the input of more than 100 diversity partners — individuals and organizations serving the black community — in the Washington, D.C. region. The 65-minute show runs through March 10 on the ATMTC stage.
Among the diversity partners is Joy Turner, director of the Sandy Spring Slave Museum (SSSM), who described the new show as “groundbreaking” and “very pertinent for this time and the things that are going on.”
“It is one of the first projects where you take the story of Huckleberry Finn, which is very controversial, and bring it into a venue where people will be able to discuss what is going on, and teach children how to talk about diversity without being fearful of doing so,” she observed.
Turner thinks that “it is important for us to put as much reality (as possible) in terms of what slavery was actually like,” Turner said. The production, she added, offers an experience likely to motivate audience members to learn more about slavery instead of skimming over a history lesson without understanding the issue.
ATMTC enlisted the original playwright to revise his script. “Huck is completely ignorant of (slavery),” Hauptman said. “He lives in it, but he does not see it. …I thought it was very brave of Michael (Bobbitt, artistic director) to do (the show) because he realized in a short, young adult form, it had to come down to Huck’s decision to free his best friend — a black slave he loved and admired.”
Hauptman took about a year to make the changes, which included removing the character of Huck’s dad Pap as well as the racial slurs in Twain’s book. The process of editing the two-hour Broadway show was challenging. “I had to keep cutting back on what I was saying, and I had to keep questioning what I was saying,” he recalled. “I had to keep simplifying the text to make it more obvious to young kids.”
At the suggestion of the diversity partners, Hauptman also changed Jim from an adult with a wife and daughter to a teenager with a mother and sister. That made Huck and Jim peers and more relatable to ATMTC’s child-based audience. He also added Jim’s first-person perspective at their request.
This production of “Big River” will be director Michael Baron’s third; he was in the ensemble of an Orlando community production at age 19 and directed another in Oklahoma four years ago. “I loved the show (when I first did it),” Baron said. “It was powerful then. It is powerful now, but the script needed adjustments.”
Photo Credit: Ryan Maxwell
Conmen Joshua Simon (the King) and Matthew Schleigh (the Duke) sing and dance across the stage.
The new production, he said, “has the wit of Mark Twain, the humor of Huck Finn, but it explores slavery a little more equally and it is just nice storytelling-wise to give voice to people that have not had a voice in the past in this story.”
Baron, who has directed five other productions at ATMTC, found it refreshing to work with diversity partners. He had not been in a situation “where the community was invited into the creative process before things have been decided,” he said. “I think if you are going to stage a new version of Huckleberry Finn, you need an African American perspective of people outside the theater world who are going to be your potential ticket buyers.”.
”If those people are not going to be somehow invested in this story, it is pointless to create it in a bubble. All the feedback we got from those community leaders has been useful,” he added.
What happens on the raft is the essence of the show. “It’s neat to see that the raft becomes this utopia about how these two boys want the world to be and then the world keeps encroaching on them,” Baron said. “Every time someone gets on the raft, they have the wrong idea about how things should be. You kind of just want to (say), ‘Leave the kids alone!’ They will make the world a better place if we just don’t impart all of our prejudices on them.”
This is actor Jonah Schwartz’s first professional production; the ATMTC’s pre-professional group member plays Huck. “I feel like it is a character that relates to me in a sense,” Schwartz said. “He marches to the beat of his own drummer — very much so. He does not conform to the way people want him to live. He doesn’t feel like he needs to accept what has been thrown at him.”
At first, Schwartz felt apprehensive about taking on the iconic role. “The more I got into it, the more I got into the accent and the more I got into his body and being free,” Schwartz said. “The more I adopt his personality and his outlook, the less intimidated I am.”
Baron hopes the production will stimulate audience members to revisit the novel and engage in conversations about kindness and how to treat people.
“Equality is something that should be a given; it is a right,” Turner said. “I hope that (audiences) take away from it that people need to be treated as equals regardless of whether they are black or white, or gay or straight. This is about how you treat human beings.”
“Huckleberry Finn’s Big River’ is on stage through March 10 at Adventure Theatre MTC, Glen Echo Park, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo. The roles are double cast. For times and tickets, call 301-634-2270 or visit www.adventuretheatre-mtc.org.