Two fathoms deep: Is Big River safe? 

Posted: November 2, 2012

Fall musical adapts story of Huckleberry Finn

At 2:55 p.m., sophomore Maggie Chamberlain rushed out of the girls’ locker room after gym class 6th hour. Walking through the link to get to the chapel at 3 p.m. she made it in time for a musical workshop. Chamberlain joined some of her friends who were talking in the front of the chapel waiting for the workshop to start.

The Minnehaha fall musical cast gathered in the chapel on Oct. 4 anticipating what they were about to do. Visitors from Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul came to work with the cast to prepare for the musical, Big River. The Adventures of  Huckleberry Finn (by Mark Twain) has been banned by many schools for its language and content. Big River, an adaptation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, therefore might be seen by some as a risky to perform.

Education director Sarah Bellamy and resident actor H. Adam Harris focused on the racial controversy and how to work through it as a cast.

“I hope the theater students see the important leadership role that they can play to promote equality and kindness in their community,” said Bellamy. “I hope they realize the power of art to open hearts and minds and to change lives and communities.”

Theater director Nicholas Freeman had a difficult time deciding if this was the right play to perform. Although it is very controversial and some people think it should be banned, Freeman chose it anyway.

“I finally decided when Dr. Harris talked to the faculty [this summer] about how our surrounding community is constantly changing and we’re becoming more and more culturally diverse,” Freeman said, “and so to me, this play has this issue that is so sensitive and so dynamic, the difference in classes and cultures from the world of Huckleberry Finn. I knew that this was the right play to do.”

One difficulty Freeman found was in the casting process. Finding the right person for the role was difficult due to the specific criteria the actors need to fit for the characters.

“For the most part you have Jim and Huck who needed to be boys and Jim needed to be an African American young man who not only can act, but can sing some deep, powerful songs,” said Freeman. “My thought was how can some of the girls that we have in the theater department, with their set of talent skills, pull off these characters that are boys?”

Because Big River is controversial, Freeman is preparing the cast and making sure that they know this may be difficult to perform.  The visitors from Penumbra Theatre helped with that.

According to their website, the theatre creates professional productions that are artistically excellent, thought provoking, relevant, and illuminate the human condition through the prism of the African American experience.

During the workshop with the Penumbra visitors, Freeman talked about the difficulty he faced while casting.

“The biggest challenge for me, growing up in a home that loved and accepted anyone for who they are no matter what they looked like, tall, fat, short, doesn’t matter, black, white, doesn’t matter, so when trying to cast a play it’s impossible for me to not think about, for this play in particular, peoples appearance and how they are going to be perceived by the audience,” said Freeman at the workshop. “We have African American students who are cast as slaves, that’s uncomfortable for me. [Being] uncomfortable makes us talk about it and makes us deal with things. While none of us like to be uncomfortable, for me I know that I am going to grow and get something out of this.”

Because of this, some schools tend to stay away from this play and others like it. Bellamy believes it’s important that student actors go beyond their comfort levels and put themselves in uncomfortable situations to grow as actors and people. She hopes they realize the difference that they can make in the people around them.

“It is a demanding show containing difficult material,” said Bellamy, “but the play presents students with an opportunity to initiate dialogue about challenging aspects of our national history that need attention.”

The cast is up for the challenge and are excited to see what they will be able to do as a group.

For junior actress Annie Bonello, theater is another place to interact with other people and do something she loves. Bonnello loves to sing and was in the musical Honk, a remaking of the ugly duckling, this past school year.

“I get to be someone else for a little bit,” said Bonello. “I’m looking forward to the final production, it’s a really powerful musical.”

Sophomore Kevin Dustrude, who plays Huck Finn, agrees and is excited for the performance. Dustrude believes the message, although controversial, will be valuable for the audience.

“I’m most excited to just perform the musical because it has a really good story and lesson,” said Dustrude. “It addresses racism a lot which I think is important.”

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