For Shine! Theatre, ‘Big River’ and Black Lives Matter go together like Mark Twain and Huck Finn

Shine! Theatre

A note from Donald: As Shine! Theatre’s “Big River” opens today, I want to share with you the thoughtful and all too timely director’s note written by tony sanders. (He does not capitalize his name.)

It’s the best preview for the show I can imagine.

The production plays for three performances (8 p.m. Friday, July 19; and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, July 20) at the Tower Theatre.

Director’s note

In 1845, an 11-year-old boy named Samuel Clemens discovered the mutilated corpse of a man named Noriam Todd. Mr. Todd was a black man who had escaped slavery only to find himself hunted, captured, tortured and eventually killed. The lad’s discovery, while horrific for a person of any age, would prove to be a truly powerful catalyst, as well. 

Pictured above: Harrison Mills, left, and Trevin Paulson in ‘Big River.’ Photo: Shine! Theatre

Four decades later that young man, now writing under the pen name, Mark Twain, wrote and published, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” The tale follows the adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a white boy from Missouri and his unlikeliest of travel companions, Jim…a runaway slave. One could easily argue that Twain was attempting to right the earlier wrong since Jim actually gains his freedom in the book’s end. Perhaps, Twain just needed to put those demons to rest and used his novel to do so. And maybe, just maybe, Mr. Twain was providing his audience with one of the greatest commentaries on one of the ugliest periods in our history. At the very least, the tome has stood the test of time, as it still sits on the required reading list in most educational institutions. And it has been adapted for film, as well as on Broadway, as the musical “Big River.” 

There is arguably an undercurrent, in the novel, of outrage (albeit cloaked in irony) which makes it far more than a boys adventure story. Mark Twain is sly about this depth, posting a “Notice” in the frontispiece of the novel: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” This is the true power of Twain’s work: he deftly hides his statement on slavery and racial divide within a children’s adventure tale. Thereby, making the hero’s trek a metaphor for the reader’s journey to discovery and enlightenment.


 Nearly eighty years after Twain wrote “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” America found herself on the precipice of a movement to finally address the long-standing social injustices and racial inequities that had plagued the country. Nearly 135 years later, the needle has moved, but in reality not very far. The musical, “Big River” retains much of the authenticity of the original novel, which includes the use of the n-word to describe and name black people. It is raw. It is ugly. It is real. And, unfortunately, it is necessary. This is a part of our American history and it cannot (and should not) be whitewashed. If hearing that word used, casually, to describe an entire race of people makes someone uncomfortable, well that’s a good thing. Its casual use should make people uncomfortable, and angry. 

Shine! Theatre

Nick Sterling in ‘Big River.’

Theater at its best acts a mirror for society to view itself. The theater should hold us accountable and inspire us to do better. It is a medium of information and communication. As a director, it is my hope that an open, honest, sober dialogue will be initiated as a result of seeing this show, especially around the use of the n-word. Because- as long as we have white teenage girls in blackface questioning online why they can’t use the n-word… as long as we continue to have members of law enforcement posting racist images and epithets… as long as pop culture continues to endorse the use of the n-word, we will continue to have a problem. We, as a society must recognize the necessity for purpose in our choices and intention in our actions. We can no longer afford to accept our current racial climate as status quo. It is to that end, that Shine! Theatre is presenting “Big River.” 

Noriam Todd died years before the Black Lives Matter movement, so he never got the hashtag, but nonetheless, his life and indeed, his passing is no less important. Mr. Todd’s senseless murder illustrates the brutality of the slave trade and exposes the crucial mechanism needed for slavery to exist: dehumanization. Africans brought to this country against their will were viewed as property, a thing to be bought, sold and owned. Not human beings. Property. Similarly, within the Black Lives Matter movement, proponents have experienced an all too familiar pushback. Opponents have adopted the tactics of the slave-owner in an attempt to de-personalize the very essence of the Movement. Their concerted effort is designed to shift the focus of the narrative in the hopes of changing the public perspective of the movement. The opponents need it to be seen as an institution rather than a marginalized group of human beings. Much like the proponents of slavery did during the era of “Big River.” 

What “Big River” does so effortlessly is put a fully realized human face on the institution of slavery. Jim serves as the spiritual and emotional catalyst for Huck’s eventual transformation and most importantly, allows the audience to bear witness to a black man with dreams, heartaches, compassion, wisdom, and triumphs. Ultimately, that level of empathy and understanding towards our fellow man is still so desperately needed within society today. 

It is my dream that “Big River,” at the very least starts a conversation. It is my dream that it instills hope. 

To a world sick with racism … Get well soon.


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Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

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