Acclaimed Musical Prompts Students to Reflect on Race

MINNEAPOLIS, MN (November 14, 2012) – Minnehaha Academy’s production of the critically acclaimed Broadway musical “Big River,” which is based on the characters of Huckelberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, gave students a special, though sometimes painful opportunity to reflect on modern-day race relations.

The Northwest Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church owns and operates the school, which is nationally recognized for its academic excellence.

Paulita Todhunter, the school’s director of diversity, told television station KTSP that she had reservations about whether to perform “Big River.” Students also were unsure, she said. “I’ve had kids come to my office questioning, ‘why do we have to do a play dredging up an issue that is painful?’ ”

The concerns centered on how African-Americans are portrayed and the fact that many of the few African-American students who attend the school were playing the part of slaves.

Nicholas Freeman, the musical’s director, said students also had an unexpected reaction. “During the audition process, some of the African-American students who came out hadn’t really done theater before, and they said, ‘I want to do those roles, it’s my responsibility to play these roles, to honor where my people came from.’ ”

Joseph-Charles Peeples-Hampton, who plays Jim the runaway slave, actually attends a performing arts school and was asked to play the part. He was at first reluctant, but said,
“I’ve separated myself from Jim, because I understand that that is a part of my past, but that is not me.”

Memorizing lines can be stressful for any actor, but the words sophomore Kevin Dustrude (Huck Finn) had to speak made the role harder for him. “I think the most problematic thing would definitely be the use of the n-word,” he said. Dustrude had to use the word several times.

It also proved an eye-opening experience for him, explaining, “I’ve never had to come in contact with that. I’ve never had to face it, stare it down.”

The performance was held this past weekend. Click here to read or watch the entire KPTS story.

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  1. This is one of the most wonderful and truly American musicals of all time, and does make us look at an important American issue of our past and, unfortunately, still of our present. I commend the Academy for choosing it and the students for rising to it – no one who takes part or even watches will ever forget it. God hates bigotry and calls us to love one another as ourselves; this is a creative and memorable way to take a good look.

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