'Big River' sometimes muddied by controversy

Monday, October 1, 2007

In 1884 Mark Twain published a novel called "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," about a poor, abused white boy, his flight from his home and his friendship with a runaway slave named Jim.

That novel would later be called the first great piece of American literature by none other than Ernest Hemingway, but it would also face its share of criticism for its unflinching look at a society in which slavery (the book is set in 1849) was a key institution. Since its release the criticism has never let up, with "Finn" being banned from schools and other places for its dialogue that relies heavily on the use of racial slurs.

In 1985 the book became a Broadway musical called "Big River," featuring a score by country singer Roger Miller, and including the language of the original novel. "Big River" went on to win a slew of awards, including a Tony for Best Musical.

In Southeast Missouri State University's production, the language has been toned down a bit, but racial slurs, and the evil institution they enforced, are still found throughout.

"Big River" director Dr. Kenn Stilson knows the language has been seen as offensive over the years, and anticipated questions, but says the message of the story is far from derogatory to the black population. By no means is the story an endorsement of racism, he said.

"It's a story of friendship by two human beings, Huckleberry Finn and Jim, the runaway slave," Stilson said. "It's the coming of age of these two friends ... it becomes two people overcoming this horrible institution of slavery and finding the meaning of true friendship."

The message is exemplified by the song "Worlds Apart," sang by Jim and Huck, which reflects on their similarities and the barriers society has thrown between them.

The true message, Stilson said, is that Huck rejects the society that condones slavery.

"He says 'All right, I'll go to hell. You can call me a dirty abolitionist, you can call me whatever you want.'"

-- Matt Sanders

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