Is Huckleberry Finn Still Relevant?

 

September 20, 2006

 

When a theatre company decides to put up a play, the first question one must always ask is why produce this play here and now? What is its relevance? How will it enlighten us about our world today?

 

On the surface, “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, which opens at The Western Stage October 7, may seem an odd choice. Granted, it’s a classic American story by Mark Twain, one of the most beloved authors in the American literary canon. True, Roger Miller ’s Tony Award winning music and lyrics span the gambit of American music from blues to bluegrass. And, of course, it’s one of the great American musicals. Opening in 1985, it ran a total of 1,005 performances and earned eight Tony awards.

 

But does the story of young Huckleberry Finn and the runaway slave Jim still have something to tell us?

 

“Yes,” says Shaun T. Evans, a San Diego based actor playing the role of Jim in TWS’ upcoming production. He should know. He’s played the role seven times before for, among others, the San Diego Civic Light Opera and the Moonlight Amphitheater as well as a regional tour in which he alternated performances with legendary Broadway star Ben Vereen.

 

“He’s a good actor,” says Evans of Vereen. “People know he’s a good singer and dancer, but he’s a really great actor.”

 

A powerfully build man with an air of quiet gravitas about him, Evans praises Vereen for finding the vulnerability in his characterization of Jim. “Some people don’t want to play Jim’s weakness at all,” says Evans. “So he becomes a caricature.” Vereen, however, found a humanity and vulnerability in Jim that Evans found very appealing.

 

Its Jim’s vulnerability, in fact, which Evans believes draws Jim to Huck. Not only are both people who do not belong in the world in which they have been thrust, but Jim also misses his own children. Evans says that being with Huck fills a void in Jim.

 

A highly experienced actor who serves as artistic director of the California Youth Conservatory in San Diego, Evans sees more to the story of  Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” than just the personal relationships. He also sees the story’s painfully obvious parallels to our present political climate.

 

“There has been a political tide lately toward taking whole groups of people and dehumanizing them,” says Evans, his soft spoken voice growing firm with passion and conviction. “People are the same everywhere. Muslim fathers love and miss their children just as much as anyone. Freedom shouldn’t be an abstract notion.”

 

One only has to remember recent headlines about Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib prison, or even the round up and deportation of Illegal Immigrant around the country to see Evans has a strong point to make. Just as a slave holder must view his slave as mere property in order to treat him so brutally, a soldier who ties his prisoners up and poses them in humiliating positions for a digital camera must likewise view their captives as less than human in order to perform such horrific acts.

 

Yet, for all its heavy and chillingly resonant themes, “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is still a musical whose aim is to raise the spirit. “I hope audiences leave the play feeling uplifted and triumphant,” says Evans, pointing out the story is filled with truly noble characters who rise to the occasion and fight to overcome the many hurdles and traps that threaten to derail their journey to freedom.

 

“Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” plays at The Western Stage through October 28th. Performances are Fri. and Sat. at 8 pm, Sun. at 2 pm. Tickets can be purchased through The Western Stage box office at (831) 375-2111 or online at westernstage.com.  

 

Dan Tarker

Literary Associate