Ever since a plucky lad called Huck Finn took his famous river voyage, his exploits along the mighty Mississippi River have been greeted with cheers and jeers.
The most recent kerfuffle over Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” concerned the teaching of the book in American public schools. During the 1990s, some black educators and authors, and civil-rights groups, claimed the iconic 1884 novel was inappropriate for classrooms due to its frequent use of the so-called n-word to connote African Americans.
There have also been objections by author Toni Morrison and others to the book’s allegedly overly simplistic characterization of the compassionate black slave Jim, who with Huck embarks on a raft journey of escape — Jim from slavery, Huck from a brutally abusive father.
Is black Jim merely a shuffling foil for white Huck? Are the novel’s many ironies beyond the grasp of high-schoolers, who may misinterpret its complex view of race relations?
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Seattle’s Book-It Repertory Theatre has long taken an activist stance against literary censorship in libraries and schools. And its lively new “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: UNCENSORED,” deliberately revisits the classroom controversy — at least in one sense.
Rather than excising the offending term for African Americans, or substituting for it the word “slave” (as did a 2011 reprint of the novel, which absurdly replaced all 219 mentions in Twain’s original text), Book-It adapter Judd Parkin and director Jane Jones set a different course.
In their production, the maligned word pops up often enough to suggest its constant (historically accurate) use in the slaveholding, mid-19th-century South of Twain’s youth — as well as the 1880s, when heinous Jim Crow laws were being enacted.
Sometimes the word is employed here with vicious intent, though more often with a casualness that by today’s linguistic standards is jarring also — in ways that invite discussion, rather than condemnation.
But while the show responds to modern criticism of the novel by muting the more clownish aspects of Jim (played here by a hearty, sensitive Geoffery Simmons), and accentuating a warm, believable bond between the runaway slave and Christopher Morson’s boyish dynamo of a Huck, it is also free of cloying sentimentality and faithful to the satirical slant of Twain’s work.
“Huck Finn” the novel is in part a profound fable about transcending inherited prejudices — as Huck gradually sees Jim not as chattel, but as a true friend. It’s also an entertainment and a rip-roaring sendup of the provincialism, venality, smugness and greed ingrained in a certain strata of the American ethos — and, the curmudgeonly Twain might add, in humanity in general.
Unfolding apace on and around plain, wood-plank platforms (dappled and emblazoned by Andrew D. Smith’s superbly various lighting scheme), the actors romp through Huck and Jim’s boisterous adventures with fortune-seekers, scalawags, priggish nags and other threats (mostly portrayed, with grand comedic relish, by Peter Jacobs and Russell Hodgkinson).
(Like most other theatrical treatments of “Huckleberry Finn,” this one lops off the later section involving Huck’s wily pal Tom Sawyer, for dramatic purposes.)
The antics are frisky and amusing, but can still pinch where it hurts — as when Huck’s horrific alcoholic father (scarily played by Hodgkinson) rants about an intrusive government that restricts his rights to terrorize his son, and allows blacks in the North to be educated (and perhaps even vote).
The swiftly moving action is complemented by the banjo twang of Dan Wheetman’s rootsy live musical score, and by some dialogue intoned choral-style by the ensemble cast. And while some muffled lines get lost in the shuffle, Huck’s persona comes through loud and clear in the irrepressible spirits and nonstop energy of the appealing, tousle-haired Morson.
Book-It is hosting numerous forums about the show and Twain’s novel. And one can take heart that many school districts have resolved the flap over this important, provocative piece of literary Americana — by embracing it as a teaching tool for a broader awareness of history, racial dynamics and the ways language can reflect a culture and evolve over time.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org