Why Big River?
When Mark Twain’s The Adventure’s of Huckleberry Finn was first published in 1884, it began with this statement…
“NOTICE: Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR”
I think Twain was being ironic, because his book is nothing if not about motives and morals. In the story, which takes place before the Civil War, Huckleberry Finn is trying to live by the tenets of his time – specifically, a time when people of a different skin color are looked down on as property, not people. But the quandary for Huck is, his instincts tell him these beliefs are wrong. For many years, Mark Twain struggled with this too.
Twain was no stranger to the life of slave ownership. His father owned slaves. But it wasn’t until he heard a first-hand account from a former slave – a woman in his employ named Mary Ann Cord – that he fully understood the brutality of slavery from a slave’s perspective. Mary Ann told him how her children and her family were sold away from her on the auction block and how she was severely beaten every time she fought back. These stories aren’t easy to listen to. That’s why Twain’s novel has often been banned. But hearing these stories unfiltered is what brings change.
Just like the original book, Big River, brings to life the most shameful period in our nation’s history – not to glorify it, but to show the horror that institutional racism can be, and how the actions of even one person can make a world of difference.
With each of my productions of Big River, I’ve made the choice to keep the novel’s harsh language intact. I think it’s important that we watch and listen to the way we behaved in the past. It’s the only way we’ll change. We need to shine a bright light on our mistakes, open our eyes and see clearly what injustice and cruelty looks like, so that we make sure we never repeat it.
I’ve had a long history with Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, first directing and choreographing a production in 1992, starring future Tony Award winner Christian Hoff. Next came a 2006 production named Best Musical of the Year in San Diego, hometown of the original production in 1984. I next directed a simplified version in Fairfield, CT, starring Nicholas Podany and first-time winner of The Voice, Javier Colon. Here’s a clip of Nick and Javier during one of our days in the studio…
In 2020, I joined forces with Rubicon Theatre’s design team to convert the Ventura, California theatre into a 360º environmental theatre-in-the-round. The goal was to make the audience feel like they were gathering under a tree near the banks of the Mississippi in 1855. Here are a few pages from Set Designer Mike Billings’ work on the show…
Excerpts from the LA Times Review
“Does a 1985 musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s then-100-year-old odyssey through the antebellum South still have something to offer? A LIVELY, DEEPLY MOVING revival of Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura makes a compelling case for the show’s CONTINUED RELEVANCE.”
“AN IMMERSIVE VENUE reconfiguration by scenic designer Mike Billings places some of the audience onstage flanking the six-piece band. Beneath an ivy-covered ceiling, panoramic projections of moonlit waters evoke the rolling Mississippi River, with a raft platform extending into the seating area. Raised wooden planks spanning the widened aisles serve as loading docks for the 22-member cast’s entrances and exits in various directions. All of which adds a close, personal dimension to Huck Finn’s opening invitation to join him and a troupe of performers for their enactment of a story with an urgent lesson about tolerance…”
“The through-line in Huck’s sprawling adventures is the hard-won conquest of his own racial prejudice — so baked in that it takes most of the show for him to recognize Jim as a fellow human being. It’s a principle that many may have assumed was universally accepted long ago. Nowadays, not so much.”
Quotes From Broadway World & Others...
“One of the more ENCHANTING and INNOVATIVE musicals we’ve seen this year, a production that brings alive the times described by Mark Twain in his 1885 novel.”
“INTIMATE, IMMERSIVE…actors and audience members surround one another in every scene, the effect heightened through set designer Mike Billings’ BRILLIANTLY ATMOSPHERIC projections…SUPERB.”
“Kirby Ward has done an EXTRAORDINARY JOB of directing and choreographing this GIANT of a show so that it works as a NEAR IMMERSIVE experience.”
“Big River is an UNPARALLELLED TRIUMPH.”