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November 25, 2004

Words, signing flow together in 'Big River'

From: Akron Beacon Journal - Akron,OH,USA - Nov 25, 2004

Musical featuring deaf, hearing actors tells tale of Huck Finn

Kerry Clawson
Beacon Journal

Being a part of Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been a life-changing experience for Shaker Heights native Michael McElroy.

His mind has been opened to a whole new language -- American Sign Language -- in this Broadway revival, which includes deaf and hard-of-hearing actors.

The musical, based on the American classic by Mark Twain, has been described as a synchronized ballet of speaking, signing, gesturing, singing and dancing. Big River had a limited run on Broadway from July through September 2003 and is now on tour, stopping at Cleveland's Playhouse Square on Tuesday.

McElroy, who originated the role of escaped slave Jim on Broadway, has returned to the tour, along with Broadway principals Tyrone Giordano (Huck) and Daniel Jenkins (Mark Twain and voice of Huck). The Broadway cast received a 2004 Tony Honor ensemble award for what was the first deaf musical on Broadway.

''This show has been such an incredible life-changing experience for all of us who have been involved in it,'' McElroy said.

The actor, a 1985 Shaker Heights High School graduate, signs all of his dialogue and lyrics throughout the show. He appears with nine deaf actors as well as hearing cast members. Each deaf actor signs and a different cast member provides his character's voice. That way deaf and hearing audiences can follow along.

Huck's evil father, Pap, is played by deaf and hearing actors working side by side. This method symbolizes the duality of Pap's nature.

By acting in Big River, McElroy, who is black, has learned what it's like to be part of the deaf minority.

''I understand the feeling of feeling on the outside,'' he said. ''But you forget that sometimes, and you forgot how that can be manifested in different ways.''

After becoming immersed in the deaf culture and fluent in deaf communication, the actor believes all Americans should be required to take American Sign Language as a foreign language. ''It's such a beautiful language and such a powerful language.''

McElroy had just six days of ''sign language boot camp'' before starting rehearsal with the other actors on Broadway. At first, he simply learned the signing as choreography: ''I really didn't know what my hands were saying,'' he said. ''I'm trying to speak two languages at the same time, and the syntax isn't the same.''

Eventually, he learned that the language was more about the meaning than the act of signing. Audiences also get to the point where they may not know every word signed, but they understand its overall meaning.

In this production, when hearing actors speak for deaf actors, their voices can come from above, in front or in back of the action, or from within a group of actors.

''For hearing audiences, I think it takes about five minutes to adjust to the fact that the person who's talking isn't the one you're supposed to pay attention to,'' McElroy said.

McElroy praised director Jeff Calhoun for his clever and creative staging, which weaves deaf and hearing storytelling into a third language.

After being nominated for a Tony for the role of Jim, McElroy said he has achieved greater recognition with casting directors and producers. That has come after years of playing principal roles on Broadway.

''The amount of accolades that I have received from within the theater community for this production has changed my life,'' he said.

McElroy almost didn't take the role because he was worried about perpetuating stereotypes. His previous roles, including Professor Tom Collins in Rent, had helped break stereotypes about black men.

''The last thing I wanted to do was play a slave, because I felt it trapped me in a place and I would be forced to live in that,'' he said.

But a wise college friend encouraged him to give voice to the slave experience and to instill his own dignity in the role.

Nevertheless, ''I was terrified being in chains and being called the 'N-word' '' onstage, McElroy said.

The show, which chronicles Huck's moral awakening, does not shy away from Twain's purposefully ironic use of the ''N-word.'' That can be difficult for some audience members to stomach, the actor said.

The musical features a score of Cajun, gospel, folk, country and blues music, written by Roger Miller.

© 2004 Akron Beacon Journal