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'Big River' sings out lessons of tolerance

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 21, 2010 - Based on Mark Twain's classic novel, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," the stage production of "Big River" brought a treasured story to life and offered a truly American voice in an emerging chorus of British musicals being produced during the mid-1980s.

Hailed as "the best musical of the season" by New York theater critics, "Big River" was the big winner at the 1985 Tony Awards, bringing home seven awards including best musical, outstanding original score and outstanding book of a musical.

"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," more than any other American novel of its day, tells the story of our country - a country as wild and varied as the people who inhabit it. Our history, in its very broadest outline, chronicles two prominent themes - themes that permeate much of Mark Twain's writing - racial conflict and the human quest for freedom.

Thankfully in the conflict that arises from the abolitionist actions of our hero, Huck, and the slave, Jim, the coming together of two different races has a most happy reconciliation. And certainly both Jim's and Huck's quests for freedom are equally influenced by the seduction of the frontier; a seduction that urges the civilized (or too civilized) individual to trade his rule-bound existence for one of a more adventurous and ideal state.

Just as our country yearned for independence and freedom only a hundred years before Twain created Huck and Jim, they too are yearning for freedom - from tyranny and oppression.

It was these very themes that first drew Stages St. Louis to "Big River" and that convinced us this is an important story to tell. Add in the very real sense of pride all Missourians have in Mark Twain, their favorite son, and "Big River" seemed like a natural for St. Louis audiences.

Twain fans certainly have much to celebrate in 2010. Not only does this year mark the 100th anniversary of his death, but the 175th anniversary of his birth, and the 125th anniversary of the publication of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"

Ernest Hemingway was quoted as saying that "all American literature comes from one book and that book was written by Mark Twain." He is referring to "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

Stages is proud and excited to introduce a whole new generation of theater-goers to this great American classic. Not only is the story populated by so many unusual and fascinating characters, but at its core is a serious and very pertinent message. Created as he was from the pen of one of our great American humorists, Huckleberry Finn speaks to all young people today, much as he did then, and his message of tolerance and friendship without regard to racial difference is one for the ages.

Most fascinating to me about the message of this piece is that we learn this lesson of tolerance from the youngest member of the cast, Huck Finn.

He is in a moral conflict with the perceived values of the society in which he lives, and while he is unable to consciously refute those values, he makes a moral choice based on his own valuation of Jim's friendship and human worth, even though his decision is in direct opposition to what he has been taught. His internal struggle is between what he is told is "proper," "legal" and "ethical," and what he believes is right.

Or as Twain himself proposed in his lecture notes, "a sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience."

It is interesting that in another musical, "Show Boat," we learn this same lesson, and also from the youngest character in the story, Magnolia. In "South Pacific," it is from the young lieutenant who sings, "You've Got to be Carefully Taught." But those pieces were written in the 20th century. Twain gave us this lesson in 1880; a lesson we are still learning today.

Ron Gibbs is managing director of Stages St. Louis.