Mpls. High School Musical Raises Eyebrows

Updated: 11/10/2012 1:02 PM By: Mark Saxenmeyer

 A Minneapolis high school is performing a musical based on the legendary literary characters "Huckleberry Finn" and "Tom Sawyer."

Problem is, some students have concerns about how African-Americans are portrayed in the show.

It's now become a lesson in race relations.

Minnehaha Academy's student body is predominantly white (students of color account for 24 percent of enrollment). And in the school's new production of "Big River," many of its few black students are playing slaves.

"I had some reservations," said Paulita Todhunter, the school's director of diversity. And she wasn't alone. "I've had kids come to my office questioning, saying 'why do we have to do a play dredging up an issue that is painful?'"

Yet then something surprising happened.

"During the audition process," said Nicholas Freeman, the musical's director, "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'."

"It was scary at first," said Joseph-Charles Peeples-Hampton. He plays Jim, the runaway slave. "I've separated myself from Jim because I understand that that is a part of my past but that is not me."

In another twist, Peeples-Hampton isn't actually a student at Minnehaha. He's a "guest performer" from the Main Street School of Performing Arts, a Minneapolis charter school. Only about 6.5 percent (60 students) of Minnehaha's 900 or so students (K-12) are black; the school had to look elsewhere to find someone with enough acting and singing experience to play Jim. "I looked into it, I read up on it, and I decided to do it," said Peeples-Hampton. "Things happen for a reason and it was brought to my attention for a reason."

"I think the most problematic thing would definitely be the use of the n-word," said Kevin Dustrude, a sophomore who plays Huck Finn. His character has to utter it several times. "I've never had to come in contact with that. I've never had to face it, stare it down," he explained.

Peeples-Hampton said that as tough as it is to have to listen to the word being said on stage, "There's only power in it if you give it power, and i choose not to do that."

Todhunter has also comes to terms with some of the more disturbing elements of the show. "I think this is a play about depicting our history as it was," she said. "you can't change the words or take them out because then you really are telling a different story."

Yet just as the times we live in have changed, so has this production. In 2009, 25 years after "Big River" was written (and performed on Broadway), the playwright decided to revise it, cutting the number of times the n-word is used -- in half.

Even so, Madison Ryan, who plays Tom Sawyer, said, "I think the fact it bothered me so much meant that I see some of it (race-related problems) in my daily life."

Peeples-Hampton added, "There's the human race, but we see ourselves as separate races, and that shows in the play."

Freeman concluded, "It's telling a story that gets people to talk. And I feel like the best art form inspires that sort of conversation."

A needed conversation, no matter how difficult.

Mark Saxenmeyer can be reached at

Minnehaha Academy performs "Big River" Saturday November 10th at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $6 for students and $12 for adults. Following the matinee, the school will hold a post-show question and answer session with audience members and the cast. The school is located at 3100 West River Parkway in Minneapolis. Questions can be directed to