Six Questions for 'Big River' Artistic Director Steve Tomkins

Big River - Village Theatre

Big River, a musical based on the Mark Twain's classic novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is playing at Village Theatre in Issaquah through October 21 and in Everett from October 26 to November 18. In addition to reviewing the production, we asked artistic director Steve Tomkins for his observations on why parents might bring kids and how they can prepare them for the subject matter.

1. What are some of the reasons Village Theatre decided to produce Big River?

First and foremost, it's an absolutely beautiful show. I think William Hauptman's adaptation of the book is spot on. The music does a great job of capturing the era and Roger Miller's style pulls out the whimsical attitude of Mark Twain. I fell in love with book and music a while ago, but the deciding factor was when I read an article in the paper about a year ago. It was talking about a school board who decided to use a highly edited version of Mark Twain book that replaces all the politically incorrect words with the word "slave." I felt quite strongly that it was a mistake and a tragedy that a whole generation would miss out on the real Mark Twain and the power of his book.

2. Why should parents consider taking their kids to see the show?

Many authors, writers, and other people who are smarter than myself, have said that Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the epitome of the American novel and the books that followed owe their existence to Mark Twain and his writing. One of the first comments I have received about the show was "Thank you for making Mark Twain's Huck Finn accessible to our families." That is one of the greatest compliments I could have received. I think the rest of the season is as exciting in it's own way as Big River, and we're excited to have people hop on board for the ride.

3. Is there an appropriate age to take kids?

That's a parents choice. That being said, any child under the age of 8 might struggle to understand what's going on, and anyone under the age of 10 might need some explanation of what they're about to see in advance. There are some parts of the story that can be scary for a child, and they need to be explained to children in advance to help them understand their context in the story.

4. Mark Twain’s classic novel has, of course, generated lots of controversy over the use of racial terms that can make people very uncomfortable in the present day. Why do you support William Hauptman’s decision to leave some of that language in the musical?

First of all, the power of the work doesn't come across without the words that were used in the original novel. Secondly, I really think we can't forget who we are and where we came from. That's one of the big lessons in life. To sugar coat it is a mistake. We won't understand Huck's journey, both literally and physically, if we don't have a framework of his growth from beginning to end.

5. How might parents prepare kids for the context of the book and the time?

By generally explaining the story to them in advance, and the era in which it takes place. If a child doesn't know what abolitionism is, or hasn't studied American history — particularly the circumstances and events leading up to the Civil War — the show might be hard for them to understand.

6. Beyond your parental guidelines, are there other resources you’d recommend for parents and educators?

There's really a wealth of materials available out there. One that has stood out to me is a wonderful book called The Jim Dilemma by Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua. It tackles the language in the story as well as the themes of slavery and race. It's more of a book for parents to read, but it can help families find ways to understand the issues in Huckleberry Finn and decide how to handle them.

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