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Big River takes chance on 13-year-old actor

We’ve learned it’s a very powerful word. And because of the power that it has, we’ve decided to use it sparingly.”

Jake Speck

Managing Director, Studio Tenn.

To ensure an air of authenticity in their production of “Big River,” the creators from Studio Tenn are using music that truly echoes the original Roger Miller sound and have cast an honest-to-goodness 13-year-old to play the role of Huckleberry Finn.

And in a decision that followed a good bit of discussion, they have decided to leave the N-word that appears throughout the script from the 1985 Broadway production.

“We’ve had an ongoing dialogue about this with several people, not only in the community but also with our cast,” said Jake Speck, managing director for Studio Tenn. “It’s a fine line, because we have a responsibility to tell a story and to be historically accurate, but at the same time, we aren’t in the business of trying to offend anyone.”

“Big River,” based on the Mark Twain novel “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” opens tonight at the Franklin Theatre and runs through March 3. It’s the latest production of Studio Tenn, which was founded in 2009 and today is led by Speck and Matt Logan, the company’s artistic director.

Speck said that both the African-American and white cast members from the show agreed that the epithet should be used as it would have been when the story was set during the mid-1800s. The word appears throughout the original Broadway production of “Big River” and in the novel, but Speck said it is used sparsely in the Studio Tenn production.

“The places that we left it in were very specifically and strategically left in for dramatic effect,” he said. “We’ve learned it’s a very powerful word. And because of the power that it has, we’ve decided to use it sparingly. We have taken on a great responsibility to use it where appropriate, and that’s not a responsibility we’ve taken lightly at all.”

The word will be completely omitted in four performances being staged exclusively for students from the Williamson County Schools district.

“The district requested that the word not be included in the school performances, and we gladly conceded,” Speck said.

Keeping much of the language intact was just part of Studio Tenn’s method for achieving authenticity. Another was finding the ideal Huck, and Speck said that happened serendipitously when he came across 13-year-old Jackson Nance playing guitar and singing at Green’s Grocery in Leiper’s Fork.

“My jaw just about hit the floor when I heard him,” Speck said. “I said, Oh, my gosh, just let him be able to act. I mean, this kid is Huckleberry Finn. He’s this young, precocious 13-year-old with this country accent.

“In most cases, the role is usually played by someone in their early 20s, mainly because it is such a huge role and it’s difficult to find someone that age who could handle it. It becomes a whole other story when you actually have a 13-year-old playing Huckleberry Finn.”

It is Nance’s first acting role anywhere. The role of Tom Sawyer is played by 16-year-old Jack Alcott and Mary Jane Wilkes is played by 14-year-old Mary Marguerite Hall, both of whom have appeared previously in Studio Tenn productions.

Speck said that he and Logan also went to great lengths with “Big River” to make their production “more true to the Roger Miller score and the Roger Miller sounds.”

Miller, who died in 1992, wrote the music and the lyrics for “Big River,” which won several Tony Awards.

“We had several meetings with Dean Miller, Roger’s son, about the music, and how we wanted to take a little bit of the Broadway out of it and put a little bit of the Roger Miller back into it,” Speck said.

“Big River” will run at the Franklin Theatre Feb. 21-March 3. Tickets are available at

‘N-Word’ a No-Go in Kids Shows

Do you agree with the decision to eliminate the racially charged “n-word” from the four performances of “Big River” being staged specifically for students?

I disagree. I think it’s important that it be historically authentic. People should know the truth of what was said at that time. You don’t rewrite history.

Al Gray, 64, Franklin



I agree. I think it’s right for them to do that for that age group. You don’t know what has been discussed yet at their homes. I know it’s part of our history, but it may not be appropriate for that age.

Danielle Miele, 28, Franklin



I disagree. I saw the movie “Django Unchained,” and heard the word 100 or more times, and I didn’t get offended. It’s being used in a historic setting, and it’s important that history not be filtered.

Tony Steele, 40, Franklin



I agree. Personally, I don’t like that word and I find it offensive.  I wouldn’t mind if they took it out of the regular performances, either.

Robert Fort, 33, Cool Springs



Posted on: 2/21/2013


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