Under the bridge 

Duelling prejudices clash in Big River

“It’s a word that starts with an N,” director Jim Caron warned his opening-night audience for Big River. “Nobody in the cast likes using it—it hurts us every time someone has to—but we felt we had to because the word is important to the show.”

The word, of course, is “nigger,” used to refer to runaway slave Jim in this truncated adaptation of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The word pops out of almost every mouth in the principal cast, in order to illustrate the acceptable custom of the time, but only in that first suggestion by Caron did the word reek with its alarming power.

Caron’s curious introduction demanded that the audience then consider Big River’s merits in spite of the offending term. It demanded that we think about the weight of race issues in Big River, and it compelled us to examine just what we’re sensitive about and what we’re not, because “nigger” is not the only offensive thing in the show. More on that later.

MCT’s production is big, easy, bouncy and jaunty, and Caron plays up the bounce and the jaunt with confident expertise. Productions at MCT are beginning to show uniform professionalism in every aspect, from lighting to casting. This is a remarkably smooth production, its three hours flying by even on opening night, a night often plagued by the uncertainties that will disappear later in the run as the cast incorporates the rhythms of its audience. Caron seems to have perfected the science of community theater and knows exactly how to get what out of whom, how to set the elements in place for a promising and delightful musical experience.

It is telling that the emotional sting of the show comes not from the lessons on race but from the pain in the interactions between Huck and his abusive, drunken father. Chris Evans, who plays Pap, wisely refrains from the broad interpretation of Mean Drunk, holds himself in check, allowing us to see his subtleties, something this actor does not always reveal. Evans compelled his audience on opening night with a portrait that was both pathetic and poignant, though not maudlin, not operatic. This may be one of the most straightforward interpretations Evans has ever played—unlikely and therefore all the more effective in a role that begs for melodrama—and his efforts paid off with bewitching strength. Andy Meyers plays Huck, working boyish charm like crazy, which pleases his audience. He is as big and fun as one of those enormous Goofys at Disneyland who elbows his way into a group picture with the kids. Terence Kelley as Jim, meanwhile, seems to be in a show with a different temperament, and exudes contemplative sadness. It doesn’t make sense, then, that the duets shared by Meyers and Kelley work as well as they do, but the two men blend technically perfect harmonies and strong voices for “Muddy Water,” “Worlds Apart” and “River in the Rain” (which has the ridiculous lyric “River, I love you! Doncha care?”). Kelley is one of the most powerful singers to grace MCT’s stage lately, and he clearly enjoys his command.

Caron’s introduction added an element of interest to the show that Big River does not really seem mature enough to explore. As a viewer, I was put on heightened alert to pay attention to the work as a statement on racism, and I prepared to interpret Jim and Huck’s adventure together as a political act. Racism toward African-Americans turns out to be part of the fabric of society in Big River, but despite Caron’s preamble, it isn’t the point. Jim has a speech or two for Huck along the Shylock lines of “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” And Huck remarks with awed revelation that Jim cares for his own people just as much as white folks do, but the show’s focus is on the episodic adventures involving oddball characters.

Still, racism matters, and Caron was responsible for getting us to wonder what constitutes a racist expression and what rises to the level of concern, or what doesn’t. Huck, Tom Sawyer (a wildly energetic Tim Luoma) and the boys are preoccupied with “injuns,” and at one point Tom bursts into Dennis-the-Menace whoops, paddling his mouth with a flat hand and hopping rhythmically in a circle. It’s jarring, a stereotype pulled from ’70s television, no longer seen even among little children.

In order to disguise Jim from people looking for a runaway slave, Duke and King (played with terrific comic brio by Scott Reilly and Glenn Schmidt) shroud him in a canvas blanket with a sign around his neck that reads “Sick Arab.” They leave him alone on the raft, where Huck finds him. After last week’s revelations of Abu Ghraib’s photos, Caron and the production may need to seriously rethink the image of a hooded “Arab” in a show focusing only on gentle entertainment. The image, already played for questionable—and confusing—comic effect, now has an added power, a weight and responsibility that it didn’t have at all during rehearsal period. I was startled to realize that it took a level of acute visual atrocity to awaken me to the power in this negative type, and I wonder how exactly Caron will introduce the show this week.

Big River runs May 12–16 at MCT. See Calendar for show times and ticket information.

arts@missoulanews.com

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