There’s something special about the character of Jim with which Michael Morman can relate.
Morman, who has performed in Central Florida theater for 30 years, performs as Jim in St. Luke’s United Methodist Church’s production of “Big River,” a musical based off the classic Mark Twain novel, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
Jim, a slave in the pre-Civil War era, presses on toward freedom, with the hopes of one day being reunited with his family.
Like Jim, Morman has had his share of struggles to overcome. Earlier in life, he became ill. He struggled with a drug addiction. He lacked confidence in his performance abilities.
But over time, Morman’s struggles made him stronger.
“My challenge was to reunite myself with who I was,” he said. “Each one of those challenges caused me to question, ‘Can I make it?'”
This summer is the fifth year St. Luke’s has put on a large-scale production, directed by Steve MacKinnon, St. Luke’s director of contemporary music and theater. The production runs through Aug. 21.
Each year, the church selects a musical with a message it feels reflects the values of the church and its community. But the summer musicals also bring community members together at the church.
Ocoee resident Dustin Russell first walked through the doors of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church three years ago, when he was invited to try out for the church’s production of “Big Fish.”
Now, he attends the church and is involved in the worship team for the church’s contemporary service. In “Big River,” he stars as Huckleberry Finn.
“I just kind of never left,” Russell said. “It’s been a wonderful experience.”
Productions at St. Luke’s draw a mix of people. About half are church members, but the other half are from the community.
“The program is designed so we are out in the community but we are also bringing the community in at such a low ticket cost,” MacKinnon said. “We can let people see this really amazing, powerful piece of theater that speaks to our values but also entertains the masses.”
This year, the production has brought together some big names in the Central Florida theater community — many of whom have never worked together.
Ken Rush, the director of theater at West Orange High School, is a big part of the show — but he’s not directing this time. Rush takes the stage as an actor, playing the King, a comical character in the show.
“Big River” is a musical based off the classic Mark Twain novel, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which is set in the time period leading up to the Civil War. While a humorous story about a wild-mannered boy named Huckleberry Finn, the musical also delves into more serious topics, many of which still ring true for the modern world.
Huckleberry Finn runs away from home to escape from his violent father and ends up teaming up with Jim, the slave who seeks to free his family.
Huckleberry Finn views Jim as property, not human — a lesson that he learned from the world around him. But along the way, he learns that Jim is indeed human and more like him than he ever thought.
The journey Huckleberry Finn takes to come to this conclusion is what drew Russell to the part.
He feels portraying Huckleberry Finn’s transformation is powerful.
“His journey from the beginning of the show, from being that little punk kid to realizing that everyone is the same — what people view as what is right can sometimes be the wrong thing to do, especially when it comes to slavery,” Russell said.
The play’s message resonated with other actors as well.
Rachel Parker, a recent graduate of Olympia High School, feels the heaviness of her part. Parker plays Alice’s daughter, a slave, in the show.
“It’s rough, actually,” she said of the role. “Just because you have to connect to things of the past and being in slavery. ... I’m not used to not having a voice; I’m very outspoken. Being in a role where you have to be meek and, obviously, as a slave you have to listen to people above you, is very hard.”
Ultimately, it is a show and message that people of all ages can enjoy.
“I think people will enjoy it,” Rush said. “It is a family show by all means. It’s a history lesson, too. ...We’re not trying to make a racial statement in this show, but it’s a look into history with song and dance. It’s not as heavy as ‘Roots,’ but it’s a good show to bring your young kids to that can start some good family discussion about the race issues and history in general.”
Contact Jennifer Nesslar at [email protected].
The theater program at St. Luke’s will expand in the coming year. MacKinnon will go from being a part-time staff member to a full-time staff member and the church and will lead the program, which will involve more theater activities during the school year. The church is also building a new building to house the contemporary worship services and the theater program.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Big River
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 18; Friday, Aug. 19; Saturday, Aug. 20
2:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 20 and Sunday, Aug. 21
WHERE: St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, 4851 S. Apopka-Vineland Road, Orlando...
TICKETS: $12; bit.ly/2aQWbtJ