Colorblind Casting Roils 'Big River'

Huckleberry Finn, played by Jay Frisby, left, and Jim, played by Nick Lehan, perform a scene from the musical
Huckleberry Finn, played by Jay Frisby, left, and Jim, played by Nick Lehan, perform a scene from the musical "Big River" at Glenelg Country School. (By Grant L. Gursky For The Washington Post)
By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 21, 2005

Scene: A log raft floats down the Mississippi. Huckleberry Finn and the runaway slave Jim are journeying toward freedom -- and friendship, in an unlikely time. Together, they sing about the muddy waters of the mighty river.

In reality, this scene from the musical "Big River" took place in the auditorium of Glenelg Country School in Howard County, more than a century after Mark Twain penned the classic tale. In this retelling, Huck was played by senior Jay Frisby, who is black, and his classmate Nick Lehan, who is white, played Jim.

That untraditional reverse casting has provoked the ire of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, which licenses the rights to the musical created by Roger Miller. It forbade the teenagers to perform the song "Muddy Water" from the musical that was broadcast last night on C-SPAN. And it will prevent them from singing it at the annual gala for the Critics and Awards Program for High School Theater, known as the Cappies, scheduled for tomorrow night at the Hippodrome Theater in Baltimore.

"That's taking a liberty that one could argue is not appropriate to what the authors of that musical are trying to convey about the novel," said Bert Fink, spokesman for R&H Theatricals. "To ignore the racial component of Huck Finn does a disservice to the story."

But Cappies officials said they were practicing a philosophy known as colorblind casting, which doesn't consider race during students' auditions. The practice is widely used at high schools across the diverse Washington region and at professional theaters across the country.

Bill Strauss, co-founder and national director of the Cappies, said that Asian students have filled the stage to portray the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang, during performances of "West Side Story" at James Madison and Thomas Jefferson high schools in Fairfax County. At Chantilly High School, he said, an Afghan student once played Ebenezer Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol." And a black female student from Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Northwest Washington won a Cappie two years ago for her portrayal of a Jewish man in "Fires in the Mirror."

Fink said that R&H supports colorblind casting if a play does not explicitly deal with race. He cited the group's licensing of the musical "Carousel" to a multiracial cast that won five Tony Awards in 1994, including one for Best Revival of a Musical. He also cited a 1997 television production of "Cinderella" that featured R&B singer Brandy in the lead and that cast a black woman and a white woman as her stepsisters.

But "Big River," he said, was a different story.

"The ethnicity of the characters of Huckleberry Finn and Jim cannot be questioned," wrote Charles Scatamacchia, director of professional licensing for R&H, in a letter to Cappies co-founder Judy Bowns. "Huck is clearly a free, white boy and Jim is clearly a black slave."

Strauss provided a copy of the letter to The Washington Post. A spokeswoman for R&H said that Scatamacchia was on vacation and unavailable for comment.

But Cappies officials said that their only concern was that the students have opportunities to share their talents. Bowns said that Nick is a bear of a boy who has a deep voice, and Jay, on the other hand, barely comes to Nick's shoulders.

"It was just so easy to see that work," she said. "If that had been reversed, it wouldn't have worked. It would've been hysterical as a sight gag."

The play's three performances in March received rave reviews from the student critics in the Cappies program and was nominated for nine awards, including Best Lead Actor for Jay and Best Featured Actor for Nick.

"The purpose of high school theater is a learning experience and is one of many ways of teaching young people of all ethnicities that they can aim for anything," Strauss said. "If you're the best Huck, you're the Huck."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company