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Follow the Signs

Deaf West Theater's production of Huck Finn lets Jim speak as never before.


When Michael McElroy auditioned for the role of Jim in Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he knew that the Deaf West Theatre production of the musical would require some knowledge of sign language. He just didn't know how much signing was required. "I thought I would only be signing a song," he laughs. "That wasn't the case. Everything that I say and everything that I sing, I sign. And I didn't know how to sign. I was like an infant learning a new language."

Apparently, McElroy grew up during the show's Broadway run last season: He was nominated for a Tony this year for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical. (He brings his award-attracting role to his hometown this week, when Big River opens at the Palace Theatre.)

Big River sticks pretty close to Mark Twain's original narrative -- except for the fact that most of the dialogue is sung and signed onstage by a cast of deaf and hearing actors. But that's not why, for McElroy, the show hadn't been an easy choice.

McElroy initially balked at playing Jim, the runaway slave who buddies up with Huck on his escapades. "I did not want to play a role like this," he recalls. "When you do a show eight times a week, you live that role. And I didn't want to be in that mind-frame."

But it's a journey he says he's glad he took. "Jim is elevated in this production," he explains. "He's not just Jim the Runaway Slave. He's Jim the Runaway Slave Who Speaks Sign Language. It's a different way of expressing this character. It automatically takes him to a different level. It takes him out of the realm of stereotype, because he's able to do this.

"I wanted him very much not to be a stereotype and fall into the traps of speaking and moving that would [depict] him in a negative way. I wanted to make sure he had dignity."

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