Samuel Clemens’ or Mark Twain’s, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has become one of the most banned and/or censored books in American schools and libraries. Book-It Repertory Theatre’s production is termed “Uncensored” because it doesn’t hide the institutionalized racism rampant in the US before, during and after the Civil War.
The use of the pejorative “nigger” isn’t the defining factor about the book or this production. It’s actually a story of two people coming to respect and love each other, by overcoming the racial, class and societal shibboleths that existed then.
As in most Twain books, the story isn't what the story is really about.
Despite his upbringing and the expectations of his family, community and state, Huck finally decides that he’ll just have go to hell, since it’s a hellfire offence to help an escaped slave, and he respects and loves his traveling companion. Jim also develops a love and respect for Huck, too, as Huck puts Jim’s welfare above his own advantage, again and again. They depend on each other for safety, food, companionship and an enjoyment of life. It’s a road story with two innocents traveling down the Mississippi River to escape intolerable lives.
This is a lively, engaging, intimate production on Book-It’s cleverly designed stage. When we first come in, we see three platforms, one at each end and one large one in the middle. All the furniture is brought in and removed by the actors, musicians, and stage crew. I wondered what they’d do about the raft, the critical furniture in the drift down the river. The central platform had a chock at each corner, turning Widow Douglas’ parlor into the raft. The ingenious use of the simple staging is a staple that we’ve come to expect from Book-It.
Christopher Morson as Huck Finn is a spirited wild boy, hiding from his abusive Pap (Russell Hodgkinson) who considers him chattel, and as such, can beat or use his son and Huck’s possessions as he sees fit. When his Pap returns, Huck has to escape such routine verbal and physical abuse.
Jim is played by Geoffrey Simmons, who also did a wonderful job as Monty in Book-It’s production of Ivan Doig’s novel Prairie Nocturne. He’s a black man, the son of a Buffalo soldier who disappeared and a washerwoman mother who believed in the efficacy of song. He has a wonderful voice (as has Simmons) but is now a chauffeur to the region’s rich man. Monty receives voice training from a woman composer and piano teacher of Helena, the territorial capital as well as a small town on the Montana prairie. The coaching is done in secret, to protect both from community’s ire at abusing the commonly accepted precepts of Montana life. Prairie Nocturne has many similar threads to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
I must also mention the musicians, Evan Crockett, Theresa Holms and Hannah Nielson who provided the music of the era, including slave songs, hymns, and simple entertainment for the people Huck and Jim meet on their adventures. They played several characters in addition to music, and helped move furniture about. Their work added, as it did in Prairie Nocturne, context, energy and life to the production. I really enjoyed their work. In fact, all the actors played several parts except for Morson and Simmons, playing Huck and Jim.
In Twain’s previous story about Tom Sawyer, Huck and Tom find some robbers’ ill gotten gains hidden in a cave, $12,000 worth, that is subsequently split between the two boys. When Pap hears about the enormous wealth Huck has happened into, he considers it his right to kidnap Huck from the Widow Douglas (Gin Hammond) and her sister Miss Watson (Peter Jacobs), and to beat and torment him until he can get his hands of the money. Widow Douglas and Miss Watson had taken him in as an act of Christian charity, to spare him an eternity in hell. They send him to church and to school where he learns to read some, write some and do some weird times tables (6 x 9 =35).
Pap is a problematical character. He’s a drunk, and mean as a snake when he is. He thinks of himself as a victim of bad luck and the “gov’ment”, which is abusing his rights to his son and whatever Huck has.
Miss Watson is thinking of selling Jim down New Orleans way; after all, she can get $800 for him. Jim’s greatest hope is that he can become a free man, to work and buy his wife and children at the neighboring farm. When he overhears Miss Watson’s proposal, he decides to take off. He wants to go to the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and then go north to a free state from Cairo (pronounced Kay-row) at the junction.
Tom, having escaped Pap’s cabin, takes a canoe to Jackson Island in the Mississippi River. There he meets Jim. When Huck scouts the news in the next small town, he hears about the slave that’s run off and one person says she saw smoke coming from Jackson Island. This is the impetus for Huck and Jim to make a raft made from the floor from a flooded cabin that’s floated down river.
The play, as Twain’s book is, full of scallywags, grifters and conmen who will use any temporary premise or “expertise”, such as a Shakespearean actor, itinerant preacher of almost any ilk, and salesman of suspect patent medicines, often of dubious or even harmful effects. One of the most amusing scenes on the river occurs when the two escapees meet two conmen running from cons gone wrong, begging Huck and Jim to take them on the raft to safety.
One of the grifters, played by Peter Jacobs, introduces himself to the three and tells them of his plight because he’s been deprived of his birthright inherited from his French grandfather, devastated by the French Revolution. He asks them to bow when talking to him and to call him Duke. The other grifter, played by Russell Hodgkinson, one-ups the stakes by stating that he’s the legitimate heir of Louis XVII of France, and asks the three to genuflect when talking to him and to call him King. Duke and King, having successfully established their curricula vitae to Huck and Jim, begin to plot their con for the next town. They decide to rent a theater for three nights only, print up some handbills offering several performances from Shakespeare’s canon. They also put “No women or children allowed” on the notices. They figure that if they get an audience on the first night, even if the audience thinks they’ve been hoodwinked, they’ll tell everyone else in the town about the great production they’ve seen. They won’t want to lose face with the other townspeople and will want everyone to come to the performance so more people will lie about the worth of the presentation, too, so they won’t lose face either. Their performance is inspired lunacy. King gallops out in long underwear striped like a Christmas candy with a long rope tail pinned to the back of it. He cavorts about the stage pulling his rope tail between his legs and saws the tail back and forth. The balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet is next. King is Juliet with his long hair in high ponytails sprouting from each side of his head. They soon ruin that and Duke presents King to perform Hamlet’s soliloquy; when King botches it, Duke takes over with a mishmash of Shakespearean quotes from many plays. Jacobs is extravagantly waving his hands, prancing and generally behaving as a puppet on a stick, all the while earnestly emoting. As soon as the third performance is finished, King and Duke take the money and run.
Huck and Finn even experience a feud, so old that neither side can remember what the original insult or hurt was. Most of the families are killed.
This marvelous production runs until May 12. Call the box office at 206-216-0833 for information and tickets. It’s well worth seeing.