Big River

This past weekend, July 15-17, The WordPlayers put on a rousing rendition of Big River at the Bijou Theatre in downtown Knoxville.

Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a musical based on the novel of the same name, which first appeared on Broadway in the mid 80’s. Featuring country and bluegrass music in keeping with its setting, the play seemed a good fit for Knoxville.

The production was put on by The WordPlayers, a self described company of Christian artists. At the beginning of the show, a man came out on stage explaining the play. He told us that the play “exposes racism; but it does not condone it,” and that the actors hoped to “help to heal the racial divisions in our community” with the play and discussions around it.

When I arrived to the show, I looked around and saw mostly middle-aged white people, so I felt a little out of the demographic.

It opened with an instrumental folk intro while the curtains reveal a screen that changes color with the timing and mood of the music. Here we meet Huckleberry Finn, who is boyishly charming and country.

The play begins with a song called “Do You Wanna Go To Heaven,” in which black servants were serving, but they didn’t speak until halfway through the first act.

When Huck leaves his caretakers to go hang out with Tom Sawyer, they talk about joining a gang, where they’d murder and rob people, in a rousing song called “The Boys.” I was a little perturbed at how many people laughed at young white boys talking about murdering people, but I guess I was outside of the demographic.

Then we met Pa, Huck’s drunk abusive father who talks his son into living with him again after finding out Finn received $300 in interest from the bank each year. The actor sings an enchantedly drunk version of the song “Guv’ment,” which ends with him trying to kill Huck because he believes him to be the Angel of Death.

Due to this, Huck ran away after faking his own murder and went on the lamb with a slave of his former caretaker named Jim. He proposes to help Jim escape to the North and to freedom as they travel together in search of a new life.

On their way, they encounter two con men named the Duke and the King. The King was greying and bearded, with a comedic style that reminded me of Jeff Bridges.

The audience became wooed by the production as the story transitioned to Tennessee. Here the evil intentions of the con men become clearer when they con the family of a man who had just died and sell Jim to a farmer for a ferry ticket.

The men also tied up Jim on the boat and dressed him as a “sick Arab man” so people would leave him be (because that’s not racist.) Thankfully, Huck realizes that slavery is wrong and “seeing the light” makes him rescue Jim from the farmer. This scene was accompanied by a beautiful chorus reprise of “Waiting for the Light to Shine.”

The WordPlayers put on a lively, entertaining show with beautiful orchestral and simple, enchanting set pieces. It’s yet to be seen if Big River will make any waves in the national racism rhetoric, but it’s definitely one heck of a splash.

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