Good news for theater fans! Rubicon Theatre Company’s current production of Big River has been extended until November 17. Its success is due in part to Beverly and Kirby Ward’s evocative, immersive set design, but mostly due to exemplary performances by its two leads, Josey Montana McCoy as Huck Finn and David Aron Damane as Jim. We talked with them prior to rehearsal session at the Rubicon.
VCOS: David, let’s start with you. Was acting your first choice?
DAVID: It was not my first choice. I did undergrad at the University of Miami as a pre-med. But I had to take an acting class as an elective, but before that, it had never even occurred to me. I had never set foot on a stage in my life. But I fell in love with acting quickly and ended up with a double major.
VCOS: What was your first show?
DAVID: The first show I ever did was Equus, in school. The first professional show was To Kill a Mockingbird, and my first professional musical was Big River.
VCOS: Those last two shows make for a good contrast in characters.
DAVID: Well, one was a musical and one wasn’t. I never knew if I could sing, I’d never sung in public and never studied it. But I had an uncle who was an opera singer and had done the revival of Porgy and Bess in the ’50s with Leontyne Price, Cab Calloway, and William Warfield. Maya Angelou was in the chorus. His name was Walter P. Brown. One day I sang “Happy Birthday” for him and told me “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing” fit my voice perfectly. So I auditioned for Porgy and got the part.
VCOS: Have you had any singing training since then?
DAVID: I think I took two voice lessons. I had done a few Broadway shows already and I was doing Porgy at the New York City Opera and figured maybe I’d better get a little training/coaching under my belt. But otherwise, it’s been on-the-job training. I guess I had a propensity for singing.
VCOS: A little innate talent doesn’t hurt either.
DAVID: I guess so. Thank goodness, because musicals usually run longer and pay more.
VCOS: In a perfect world, which do you prefer?
DAVID: I’m really picky with musicals and my first bent is toward the dramatic dissection of character, so I guess it’s my gift, as far as musicals are concerned. My approach is not to the music first. But I am picky, and there are not too many musicals that I actually like. Even as a kid I would watch and think, why are they breaking out in song and dance? It just didn’t quite click with my logical mind. But when it’s done well, it’s wonderful, like this show, like Sweeney Todd, there are a few I could mention. I’ve grown to appreciate them more over the years, but my first bent is toward the dramatic, and then I tailor the music around that.
VCOS: What role did you play in To Kill a Mockingbird?
DAVID: I was Tom Robinson.
VCOS: So in both that show and Big River you’re playing a noble figure in shows that concern racism. In Mockingbird, the racism is dark and up front, but in Big River, it’s more subdued and in some cases, even lighthearted. Did your experience playing Tom Robinson affect how you approached Jim in Big River?
DAVID: It’s funny when you compare the two. I compare it more with my own life experiences in the world to both of them. I don’t know if I’d draw anything from Tom Robinson in playing Jim, but historical perspective, my knowledge of history, and my own life, walking around as a person of color for all of my life were what I used. But you’re right. In To Kill a Mockingbird, everything is very overt, everything is very pointed, that’s the point of the show. For Big River, the point of the show is everyone should get along. The world is one of pervasive racism that is there, in the air, and obviously, you were dealing with slavery times so that has to affect the narrative. But Big River is much more upbeat and much more uplifting and much more positive. There’s a song in the musical, “Worlds Apart,” in which the point of the song is that there is no reason for us TO be worlds apart. I’ve done Mockingbird twice and the mind space to be in that show is not a nice one, whereas with this one, even with the racist overtones, it’s glorious. I’ve done Big River more than I’ve done any other show in my life.
VCOS: Do you see the characters as real people or as constructs?
DAVID: As written, I’m sure they’re all amalgams of characters in Twain’s mind, maybe in people he met, but directors and actors’ jobs is to make them into real people. And you always have to go from that perspective. There are times where things drift into caricature and that’s easy to do, especially since it’s based in the South where you have Southern dialect, idioms, and so forth, but Kirby thinks that’s not the way to go. That’s too easy. Let’s play against that. Not everyone was like that. Be a real person inside of this world. So hopefully that comes across.
VCOS: Tell me about Jim and how you see him.
DAVID: Jim is strong, Jim is driven and determined. His wife and children were sold from him and his quest for freedom isn’t for himself. His sole purpose in seeking freedom is not to go steal his wife and children but he wants to do it the right way. He wants to make money and buy them from their owners. Just to have that conviction to run, knowing what would happen to him, there’s no turning back from that. Anything can happen if he got caught, from maiming to death. So I have nothing but admiration for that character.
VCOS: One thing that I think is underemphasized by people who see this show is its sense of family. Jim and Huck become almost like brothers.
DAVID: That’s easy to do. You can enjoy it on any level you would like to. You can come see this show just for the music, which is some of the most glorious music in musical theater. But if you want to dig deeper, it’s there, and you know, there’s an audience for every show and a show for every audience.
VCOS: Josey, let’s move over to you now. Both Huck and Jim are driven by a sense of family. Jim is motivated by seeking his family’s freedom and reuniting with them, but Huck is driven away by the members of his family who want him to conform. Tell me a little about Huck’s relationship to his family.
JOSEY: Gosh, I see it in a completely different light now. I’ve done this show four times, the third time as Huck. The most previous time was seven years ago, and now I have a 49-day-old kid so I see Huck in such a different light today. The family aspect is a huge part of this show, in my eyes. I think it’s fascinating that Huck doesn’t really know what he wants. He doesn’t know if he wants a family, the only one he’s ever had has been cruel to him or just not present. And then he gets adopted by these two ladies who say they are going to take care of him, and he likes to think that that’s a good thing but there’s a new, completely different set of principles that they bring to him, and it’s a different kind of abuse as he sees it, where they’re forcing him to be pigeonholed into something that he doesn’t think that he is. I think there are absolutely times where Huck realizes that life is about making his own family and going outside the traditional boundaries that he’s been used to. Jim is a huge role model for Huck, whether he is a father figure or a brother or just a comrade is just something that’s completely new to him at the beginning of this adventure. I don’t think that Huck really understands what family is until he’s with Jim.
VCOS: Which character realizes this relationship first, Huck or Jim?
DAVID: Probably Jim.
VCOS: Where in the story do you get that sense that Huck is Jim’s family?
DAVID: Certainly by “Worlds Apart,” which is in the second act. That’s the laser point, right before he talks about his own children.
VCOS: Both of you have done Big River before. Were they always on large stages?
DAVID: I think all but one has been done in a large theater.
JOSEY: For me, I started in my home theater, the Jenny Wiley Theater in Prestonsburg, Kentucky. It’s a 700-seat amphitheater, but other than that, smaller theaters, bigger than the Rubicon, with 200-250 seats.
VCOS: Does the size of the theater affect your performance?
DAVID: Not as much as I thought it would. I’ve done theater in the round before. I guess it’s a little more freeing because you don’t have to project as much. I did the Broadway revival, I did the national tour and the Broadway house was the smallest, 747 seats. When you do a show in a theater that’s 2,000 or 3,000 seats, it’s work not to overwhelm the people in the front and still reach the people in the back.
VCOS: How do you like doing it in this really intimate atmosphere, especially with the stage coming out into the audience?
JOSEY: I personally love it, especially coming from Huck’s perspective as the storyteller. I can only imagine him in a 2,000 seat house, having to tell this story to the people up in the balcony. Here, we have the audience right on the stage with us and I’m able to just turn up stage and look somebody right in the eye. Last night we did a preview and there was someone two feet away from me and I was laying on the stage and I just said something right to their face. It’s very, very cool, not just for this intimate space but for this story because that’s really what it’s all about. All theater is storytelling but here is one character who is trying to tell a story and that makes this really fun.
DAVID: Some shows lose their power because of spectacle or lack of spectacle. This show is not one of them. I mean, you try to do a Saigon or Les Mis on this stage, it’ll still be a good show but it’s not going to be as impactful. This show loses absolutely nothing.
VCOS: Now they’ve done big shows on this stage, Fiddler, My Fair Lady, South Pacific, West Side Story. They had Sharks and Jets leaping onto all of the seats and running up and down the aisles. But they use the whole space and when they do a show that is designed for an intimate audience, it’s just magical. Josey, where are you from?
JOSEY: Originally from a tiny little town, Inez, Kentucky, population 600. We had to drive thirty minutes for everything, every theater, every dance lesson, every mall. We had a Rite Aid in town. We didn’t get a movie theater until I was 14. But I grew up doing theater in the summer at that theater that I mentioned, the Jenny Wiley Theater and it was absolutely my home away from home. I went to the University of Kentucky for broadcast journalism and minored in theater. I really wanted to be a sports journalist. I really wanted to be on TV, talking about sports. But then I felt this urge to give back to the stage, which is what I’ve bee doing since I was eight. So I found out what the theater department was up to and started minoring in that.
VCOS: What is your favorite moment in the show?
DAVID: “Waitin’ for the Light to Shine” has always been a highlight for me. It’s weird. I don’t know if I have some association with it personally, but at the very end of the show, during Huck’s last monolog, there’s a little key change thing, a little minor key thing that hits me every single time. It’s almost like someone is saying, “OK, let’s let this kid start his REAL journey.”
JOSEY: I think a lot of my favorite moments are pinpoints with musical motifs like that because it’s such a huge part of this story and it’s written so well, no matter where you do it. I agree, “Waitin’ for the Light” is great, but for me, as an actor, it’s right before “Waitin’ for the Light” begins, because it’s both easy and hard to play this juxtaposition of the decision he makes, which he believes in his heart to be wrong, but he doesn’t care. Everything is thrown to the wayside, the relationship with his father, the relationship with the wonderful Christian ladies who have taken him in and tell him what heaven is and how to read the Bible. And he just says, OK, fine. I know it’s wrong (even though it’s right)…
DAVID: That’s the part that is often missed when people talk about this show. You know, Huck does the right thing. Huck thinks this is wrong.
JOSEY: Yes, he completely thinks it’s wrong.
DAVID: And that’s an interesting thing to explore because it’s the opposite of what people think this show is about. Here’s this kid who gets redeemed, does a complete 180 in his thinking.
VCOS: I was talking about this with Kirby and Beverly. I asked them, what was Huck’s motivation? Is it doing the right thing? Or is he just being rebellious?
JOSEY: That’s a great question because I don’t think it’s either. It’s rebellious in the fact that he’s going against everything everyone has been telling him but he’s not doing it to be a rebel and he’s not doing it to be good. He’s doing it because that’s exactly what his heart is telling him; it’s the only possible thing he can do.
DAVID: And it’s personal. It’s Jim. It’s his friend. It’s his family, in his mind. And it doesn’t go beyond that. There’s something pure about that because it’s not an overly altruistic thing that he’s doing.
VCOS: It’s one of the great friendships in the theater. Your two characters. And there are also very few shows that have such beautiful male vocal duets.
JOSEY: Absolutely. And there are three spectacular ones! And they really run the gamut. But it’s always been one of my favorite shows and it absolutely has some of my favorite songs.
VCOS: Does this show ever get old for you?
DAVID: Nope. Never does. Number 8 and it’s still the same for me.
Big River is extended through November 17 at the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura. For dates and show times, see the VC On Stage Calendar. Click on the ad on our home page for ticket information.