Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Your mysteries are deep and wide

I have a couple of problems with this: GLENELG, Md. - A black Huck Finn and a white Jim might be OK for a high school production of Mark Twain's classic tale — but those performances had to be edited out of a C-Span talent show after the copyright holder objected to the cross-casting. [...] Bert Fink, a spokesman for R&H Theatricals — the Rodgers & Hammerstein organization, which holds the license to the play — said his organization is not against cross-casting in general. "But when you're dealing with a theatrical work and race or ethnicity is a key factor, many authors or playwrights feel strongly that ethnicity has to be reflected in the actors who portray the characters," he said. "In the books, Jim is a runaway slave. He is clearly in the novel an African-American man. And Huck is a free white man — that is central to the story. To ignore that component or to comment on it by switching is not faithful to the story." I have to agree with R&H's position here; cross-casting makes the entire concept of the story incomprehensible, except as an instance of stunt-casting. Are Jim and Huck supposed to still be the same ethnicities as written, just not played as such, as a blandly clever spectacle? Are the basic premises of 19th-century American racial demographics and society supposed to be reversed? Unless it's explicitly answered either way, given the particular story, it just doesn't seem appropriate. There are lots of titles in their catalogue where race is a complete irrelevancy for every single character; why didn't the school go with one of those? Also, the title of the musical is Big River, which AP seems to have overlooked. (Warning: page contains embedded audio, including an enjoyable couple of verses of the song whose performance is central to the story here, "Muddy Water.") Frisby's father, Washington attorney Russell Frisby, said he was appalled by the decision. "The only rationale for it is that someone in New York believes Huck Finn can't be played by an African-American. I thought we were past the days of 'whites only' clauses," the elder Frisby said. Erg. Institutional racism isn't the case here, and I think the actor's father does himself a disservice by making the accusation. If a role is very specifically written as black or white, due to the central importance of the particular setting (and it's hard to argue that a story set in the antebellum American South doesn't meet that criterion), does reversing roles make any statement other than of disrespect for the source material? It's not that Huck Finn can't be played by an African-American (and I'm sure very ably, at that), but about the necessity of maintaining some kind of coherent facsimile of the work as written, which is likely part of the school's licensing agreement to use Big River's book and score. I'm sure R&H wouldn't be very happy about the high school's drama teacher rewriting the play to be set in a Martian mining colony, either. Moreover, they only objected to the national broadcast of the school's production. That seems understandable, at least from the perspective of protecting the 'brand' of the particular show; there was a Broadway revival just last year (scroll down), and one that utilized stuntcasting in a way that didn't interfere with the essential story, in having an largely-deaf cast. Besides...take a listen to the original cast recording. This isn't just about the roster of whose name is next to which role in the program - but a newswire would have a hard time criticizing from the artistic point-of-view. Jim gets better, deeper, less comic-relief-ish numbers than Huck. The song "Free at Last," in particular, is magnificent - but I don't think would have quite the same impact coming from a white actor; is that really racist, to consider that sort of cultural appropriation tactless at best? (Via Hit & Run.)

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