The Color of the Play

By Catherine Gewertz — June 07, 2005 1 min read

A private school near Baltimore won raves for its production this spring of a musical based on Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But its race-blind casting has complicated its tale of success.

The Critics and Awards Program for High School Theater, better known as the Cappies, bestowed three top awards on Glenelg Country School’s “Big River.” The cast featured an African-American actor as Huck and a white actor as Jim, the runaway slave.

The Cappies sought permission for the two lead actors to sing “Muddy Waters,” a song from the show, on C-SPAN’s “Close Up” show May 20, and at a regional Cappies gala May 22.

But R&H Theatricals, the New York City-based company that represents the authors of “Big River,” would not allow the performances, citing the casting decision.

In a May 17 letter to the Cappies, an official of the licensing company said the casting “shows a willful disregard for the authors’ intentions.”

“The ethnicity of the characters of Huckleberry Finn and Jim can not be questioned,” said Charlie Scatamacchia, the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization’s director of professional licensing. “Huck is clearly a free white boy and Jim is clearly a black slave.”

The company later allowed the two students to sing the song at another Cappies gala, scheduled for June 5 in Washington, but only out of concern that the controversy was shortchanging the young actors, said R&H Theatricals spokesman Bert Fink.

The company has long supported colorblind casting, but “to ignore race in a story which is fundamentally about race undermines the purpose of the piece,” Mr. Fink said.

William Strauss, the Cappies’ national director, said the brouhaha bodes poorly for an increasingly diverse younger generation’s opportunities in theater.

“Casting strictly around original characters certainly narrows things down for students,” he said. “We certainly wouldn’t want to see any suggestion that ‘The Sound of Music’ would have to be cast all-Caucasian.”

For Carole Lehan, the Glenelg play’s director, casting decisions are not about race, but the best fit for the part.

Last year, she cast a Turkish Muslim student in the role of Jesus for “Godspell.” For “Big River,” she said, each lead actor’s size, style, and singing voice were great fits for his role.

“It was easy,” Ms. Lehan said. “Now, suddenly, it doesn’t seem as easy.”