After one big idea took shape, the path forward became clear for Adventure Theatre’s new hour-long, kid-friendly version of the Tony-winning 1985 Broadway musical, “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” In the newly titled “Huckleberry Finn’s Big River,” the escaped slave Jim, who shares that raft down the Mississippi with Huck, is a teen, just like Huck.
Even before the Huck-Jim age decision, it had been a given that the show would include none of the offensive racial slurs that appear more than 200 times in Mark Twain’s iconic 1885 novel and, to a far lesser degree, in the Broadway script.
“I wanted people to understand the history of the story, but not be offended by the language in the story,” says Adventure’s artistic director Michael J. Bobbitt. “That seemed to be an easy thing to fix. We are maintaining the history of the piece and the essence of Mark Twain’s novel, but we’re getting rid of anything that is offensive or reinjuring for people.”
Theater artists weren’t the only ones on the journey toward last Friday’s opening. They were in frequent communication with a group of “consensus organizers” — more than 100 African American civil rights and community activists in and around Montgomery County, who offered feedback throughout script development and rehearsals. The show’s director, Michael Baron, concedes that “Big River” is “not a show that African Americans tend to actually see because of the history of ‘Huckleberry Finn’ and how they’re going to be portrayed. We’ve asked the African American community what would bring them into the story more.”
After a rehearsal in Rockville, for example, the cast met with facilitators from the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and got pointers on how to handle post-show questions from kids learning about slavery for the first time, and parents wondering how to discuss it.
Gone from this version are any violent depictions of slavery, and there’s no sign of Huck’s abusive father, Pap. Jim and Huck now share the direct-address narration, joined by the young heiress Mary Jane and her friend, an enslaved girl, Alice (a character invented for Broadway and amplified here) .
Writer William Hauptman won a Tony for “Big River.” When approached by the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, which licenses the show, he was game to jump on the raft with Bobbitt and refashion his original script.
“I tried to take everything out that I thought would disturb kids in any way,” Hauptman said from his Brooklyn home. He also managed to work in 11 of the country and gospel tunes from “Big River” songwriter Roger Miller, like “Waiting for the Light to Shine,” from the original score. And instead of the wife and children Jim longs to free from slavery in Twain’s book and the Broadway version, a now-adolescent Jim yearns to rescue his mother and sisters.
“The biggest step we made was to let Jim talk to the audience,” Hauptman said. “Michael Bobbitt always wanted Jim and Huck to be young men, very young men.”
Early in rehearsals, director Baron and the Adventure cast visited the Sandy Spring Slave Museum to get a feel for the world of the show. Baron said he told the cast, “In an hour, we’re not going to be able to talk about the intricacies of slavery, and how it happened, and the repercussions. But what we can do is look at this raft as sort of a utopia of how we should behave, and how we should treat each other with kindness.”
The museum’s director, Joy Williams Turner, is one of the consensus organizers. For her, too, making Jim the same age as Huck was “a key to everything, making that a level playing field to get the message across of bridging a gap. And also not having a demeaning image of a young boy dealing with an older man, because that kind of shows the disparity in race and age, and all of that that was the sticking point in the book.”
Developing Adventure’s “Huckleberry Finn’s Big River,” which is a co-production with the Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma, represents a leap for Bobbitt. “It’s the most involved that the company has been in the process of putting up a play,” he says. “When you do ‘Winnie the Pooh,’ you just do ‘Winnie the Pooh.’ There’s no organizing, there’s no deep conversations about devising a script. This has been developing a new script with input from a community of people, not just the artists.”
Dates: Through March 10 at Adventure Theatre MTC, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo.
301-634-2270 or adventuretheatre