Dramatic License

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In a Glenelg, Maryland, high school, Jim Frisby, a black student, and Nick Lehan, a white student, performed the song "Muddy Water" from the theatrical version of Mark Twain's Huck Finn. The only difference was, Frisby played Huck and Lehan played the slave, Jim.

This was all well and good until C-Span tried to air the performance on Close Up. R & H Theatricals, the Rogers and Hammerstein organization that owns the license to the play, denied Close Up permission to air the song, arguing that "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." Frisby's father says that's racism. Mark Twain could not be reached for comment.

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  1. Wasn’t Mark Twain open about his racism? Am I thinking of the right historical figure? Or am I thinking of someone else, say, Hitler? I’m confused.

  2. I saw a performance of “Hamlet” with a female lead and a male Oephelia. Some of the original meaning was lost, while other meanings manifested themselves. When Hamlet was complaining about his weak-willed Mom, and spoke the line “Frailty, thy name is Woman,” the line had a completely different significance because it was coming from a woman.

    The Huck/Jim relationship is so powerful because their races gave certain actions and statements meaning when considered against the backdrop of the slave culture in which they lived. Reversing their races pretty much guts a major element of the story.

    Whether you find this argument compelling or not, the father’s assertion that the only argument against cross casting is a racist determination to deny lead roles to black people is either idiotic, dishonest, or both.

  3. The Huck/Jim relationship is so powerful because their races gave certain actions and statements meaning when considered against the backdrop of the slave culture in which they lived. Reversing their races pretty much guts a major element of the story.

    Seems to me that it heightens the racial element, rather than gutting it. Everyone knows which race owned the slaves and which race was enslaved. Switching roles doesn’t (and can’t) eliminate that knowledge; it plays off of it.

    It’s an interesting casting idea, and I wish we had a chance to see how well it worked out in practice. R&H Theatricals is being a bunch of tight-asses.

  4. Jesse,

    I guess it depends on how it would be done. Would it still be clear that Jim was an escaped slave if he was a white guy? If the play appears to be a story about a kindly white hobo who travels with an escaped ten year old slave, the element of Huck’s perceived (by the people on the shore) danger and the trangressively-equal relationship between the two characters goes away.

  5. Twain wasn’t racist toward blacks. Native Americans, on the other hand….

  6. Twain wasn’t a racist, he was a misantrope. Despite the friendly, down-home popular image of Twain, he was a cynic who rarely had anything good to say about the human race in general. Of course, that’s just one more reason to love him.

  7. Joe: I don’t think you could eliminate the fact that Jim’s a slave from the play (though perhaps you could from a performance of just one song from the play).

  8. Jesse- Remember, we’re talking about a public high school. If there is a way to expunge slavery from Twain’s narrative, they’ll find it.

  9. Jesse, I can buy that.

  10. I want to hear Jennifer’s opinion on this.

  11. Thoreau–

    Even my overly-politically-correct school didn’t ban Huck Finn. And for all the things I did get in trouble for, none of them stemmed from my Huck Finn lessons. So I have nothing of import to contribute here, except to say that R&H productions was stupid to ban the performance; an aired showing of a high school performance won’t cost them any money and WOULD earn them some goodwill. They blew it.

  12. Mark Twain could not be reached for comment.

    Reports of his death are completely accurate.

  13. That sounds about right, Jennifer. Whatever one might think of the artistic merit (or lack thereof) of R&H’s decision, I don’t see them getting any good press out of it.

  14. I?m with Jesse on this. I think the juxtaposition of the races of the characters makes for interesting commentary. This wouldn?t work with two white guys or two black guys.

  15. This just shows how copyright laws are out of hand. You only get 20 years for a patent, but 75 years after death for a manuscript? Last time I read Article I, section 8, congress had the power to grant limited time monopolies for the advancement of science and useful arts. I see a big disparity between 20 years for a science invention, and life plus 75 for useful art. Life plus 75 doesn’t sound very limited.

  16. Can we all agree that if they actually had the black kid playing the slave that everyone would be incensed by how “racist” the play is? …. maybe even offer (or require) counseling for the students. I don’t know, maybe I’m becoming too contemptuous towards our school systems.

  17. “Can we all agree that if they actually had the black kid playing the slave that everyone would be incensed by how “racist” the play is?”

    Yeah, sure, doesn’t everyone remember the race riots set off by the casting of black people to play slaves in “Roots?”

  18. I think it’s also important to remember what a role does for the actor. In a school setting especially, I think having a white actor play a slave and a black actor play a white person who sees slavery as a normal part of life would be highly educational for the actors.

  19. Marcus-
    It’s impossible to be too contemptuous of public school systems.

  20. FWIW, I once saw an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye performed with actors from several races playing the all-black cast of characters. It was an interesting idea, but it really didn’t work, because the white and Asian actors were completely uncomfortable making any attempt at an African-American dialect or accent. I wonder if these kids had the same problem. It’d be interesting to see.

  21. Well, for once we can’t blame the School Board, just a bunch of hacks at R & H Theatricals. Even though they have a perfect right to control their property, I vote with the rest of you who have judged this to be a dumb move on their part.

    I couldn’t find a Mark Twain quote that fit but it’s always fun to mock the school system* and here once again Mr Clemens is at his best.

    “God made the Idiot for practice, and then He made the School Board.”

    *as the old backup went when they hanged an innocent man, “oh well, he was probably guilty of something“.

  22. How anyone could view Twain or Huck Finn as racist in the first place is beyond me. Twain clearly writes the character Jim to be the best person out of the whole bunch. And I think the bit where Twain has Huck deciding that he’ll be “bad” by not betraying Jim (the “good” thing would be to turn him in) shows pretty clearly where Twain stood on slavery.

    As for monkeying about with gender, race, etc. in varying roles, I think the point was made about thirty years ago, and it’s just not that interesting anymore. It makes no sense where the race or gender is crucial to the plot (e.g., Huckleberry Finn), and I see no point in gutting a classic work’s whole purpose to make some minor point about identity issues. How about coming up with something new, instead?

    Of course, it can be interesting to put people in unusual roles for their gender or race–something that used to be fairly big in science fiction, for instance. I just re-read Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which plays around with gender quite a bit but also sneaks in a black protagonist.

    Hamlet may seem weird when presented as a reverse-gendered play, but Macbeth is even weirder. I saw such a presentation a couple of years ago, and I’m still trying to figure out Mr. Lady Macbeth. . . .

  23. “Can we all agree that if they actually had the black kid playing the slave that everyone would be incensed by how “racist” the play is?”

    Yeah, sure, doesn’t everyone remember the race riots set off by the casting of black people to play slaves in “Roots?”

    This snark would be more understandable on a planet where some misguided group or another is not constantly trying to get Huck Finn banned for being racist, because it uses the word “nigger.” We don’t live on that planet. (Nobody, to the best of my knowledge, has ever tried to ban “Roots” as racist.)

    Now, given that, it’s not hard to imagine the same parents’ groups that try to ban the book being exponentially more incensed — to the point of lawsuits and calls for resignations — at one of their children appearing in a play which requires that he be called “nigger.”

    Still, “A” for effort on the counterfactual.

  24. Twain would be considered a racist today, as would pretty much anybody from that era — including that beloved fraud Abe Lincoln. Just being vaguely aware of races or nationalities is enough to get branded a racist these days.

    Doesn’t matter if he was or not; the schoolmarms decide if you’re a racist today, and they sure like to ban Huck Finn from middle-school libraries.

    (Twain would also be considered a Jesus-hating anti-American traitor today, but that’s a topic for another day ….)

  25. Points of fact: 1) This wasn’t done at a public high school; it was done at a private high school; 2) Mark Twain was not a racist. In fact, he didn’t have a racist bone in his body. Huckleberry Finn, in particular, is one of the most anti-racist books ever written.

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