KPBS AIRDATE: December 27, 2002
It would seem like a mighty big stretch for a deaf theater to mount a musical, and a bigger leap for it to be “Big River,” the musicalized version of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” And yet, it all fits. First off, as the narrator, Mark Twain, informs us at the beginning, “Huck Finn” is the story of a social outcast. And that, sadly, is the plight of deaf Americans — in the 19th century as well as the 21st. Surprisingly, there are actually two deaf characters in the novel — well, “deef and dumb,” as Huck would put it. The slave Jim’s daughter became deaf after a bout of scarlet fever, and the two conmen, the Duke and the King, impersonate a dead man’s brothers, one of whom is also ‘deef and dumb,’ in order to rip off the inheritance. So there’s more than a little relevance to the deaf community here. And, as everyone knows, Twain’s 1884 novel is one of the greatest stories in all of literature — despite the fact that libraries have been banning it for over a century, continuing to today.
“Big River” premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1984, a year before it opened on Broadway, where it garnered 7 Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Direction, for our own Des McAnuff. Now along comes Deaf West, a small 99-seat theater company, that blew the play out of the water — that would be the Mississippi — and won a raft of awards in L.A. This is the first time the Mark Taper Forum has ever plucked a tiny theater production and brought it onto its own stage. And the result is spectacular. About half the original cast is intact, as well as the magnificently imaginative conception of director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun.
The challenge of deaf theater has always been how to make the play seamlessly bilingual. I know, because I founded Sign of the Times, the San Diego Theater of the Deaf, when I moved here in 1980. How that thorny issue is solved by Deaf West is thrilling to behold… with all the hearing actors singing and signing, and the deaf actors artistically signing the dialogue and songs, backed by various inventive voiceover strategies. After awhile, it really doesn’t matter who’s deaf or hearing. And after repeated refrains of one song in Roger Miller’s twangy country score, , the music stops and the signing continues, so we see the show just as the deaf audience does. This is pure theater magic… The sign adds breadth, depth and universality to the musical. And all the actors are superb, especially Rufus Bonds, Jr. as Jim, who signs as beautifully as he speaks and sings; Scott Waara as our banjo-pickin’ narrator, and deaf actors Michael Davis and Tyrone Giordano, irresistible as Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. This may be unlike anything you’ve ever seen. As Huck might say, it’s just plum good theater… and you daren’t miss it.
©2002 Patté Productions Inc.