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UPDATED: 5/27/20 - 4:04 p.m.

Catawba's Musical "Huck Finn" is Tribute to Alumnus Billy Burke

April 10, 2012

Category: Academics, Alumni, Events, Students, Theatre Arts

By Katie Higgins, Catawba College Student

Huck FinnCatawba College's production of the musical, "Huck Finn," will pay tribute to "Mr. Music" of Salisbury, 94-year-old Billy Burke, a college alumnus. The musical, based on Mark Twain's classic, "The Tales of Huckleberry Finn," will be performed in Keppel Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 19 through Saturday, April 21, and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, April 22. The April 22 matinee will be presented by the Rowan County Concert Association.

The musical begins on the Mississippi River after Huck escapes from his drunkard father and unites with a runaway slave named Jim. These two unexpected companions take a magical journey bound by their friendship during which they face the challenges of life on the run and the best and the worst of the mid-nineteenth century.

During Huck's journey of self-discovery, he meets some very comical, yet impactful characters who ultimately shape his view of society and his friendship with Jim. Although the story is told mainly from Huck's perspective, to say it is merely a play about him would be inaccurate. Jim's role in Huck's inner discovery and the story itself is crucial to the underlying message of the play: that the greatest friendship can occur in the most unlikely of places.  

Catawba's 2012 production of "Huck Finn" marks the third time that the musical has been presented on Catawba's stage.  It was first offered in1954, then again in 1958 with music that Billy Burke wrote for the production. Although timid to accept the offer at first back in 1954, Burke began with just two original songs, but eventually wrote all 15 songs performed during the show.

Burke has been on hand during this year's production process, always encouraging the cast. At a recent rehearsal, he had a chance to meet the entire ensemble and even sing along with the cast as they practiced his song, "All Aboard." He also took the opportunity to reminisce with the show's director, Catawba Theatre Arts Professor Dave Pulliam. Burke says he is excited about the "Huck Finn" revival and trusts Pulliam to "take care of his baby."

Pulliam has made some alterations to the production, making it unique from its past two runs. One of the first additions Pulliam has included is a character who goes by the name of "The White-Suited Gentleman."  This character was created to be a representation of the author of the tale, Mark Twain. His presence on stage allows Huck the opportunity to defy the author, a theme that is also conveyed in the book, and allows for some comical banter between the two.

In this year's production, Pulliam also has had the opportunity to cast from a more diverse group of students. This is a major difference from the 1950s' productions where white students had to play the African-American characters in black face. Both Burke and Pulliam are happy with the change, especially Burke, who said he believes things have "certainly changed for the better."

BurkePulliam's excitement has been obvious during the rehearsal process. He says that he had been looking to produce the show for the past several years, but did not have a diverse enough group of students to pull it off until now. Perhaps Pulliam's biggest casting change, however, is choosing female Robin Tynes to play the role of Huck Finn. Tynes, a senior, has been a major part of Catawba's theatre department for the past four years. She serves as the Blue Masque President, Alpha Psi Omega Vise President, and has previously appeared in "Merry Wives of Windsor," "The Weir," "Hello Dolly," as well as "As I Lay Dying."  

Tynes notes her biggest challenge has been the transition to the adventurous, boisterous 13 year-old Huck. "I've never played a cross-gender role before," Robin says, "but I love the adventure and energy of Huck." 

Huck FinnWhile the show is largely upbeat, fun, and comical, it discusses major issues of that time, such as slavery, discrimination, and comments on the hypocrisy of the Huck's society. It is interesting to see how much the production and the people involved have overcome many of that period's societal problems; actors no longer are in black face, a female is playing the role of a Huck, and the cast has an overall more diverse group. While some of the distasteful language was not changed, due to the desire to remain historically accurate, the show itself, and the people involved, certainly demonstrate a societal transition for the better, making this show a unique version of an American classic.

The cast includes seniors Robin Tynes of Black Mountain; Brad Boaz of Gastonia; Canaan Cox of Hendersonville; Ka'shara Davis of Charlotte; and Jered Shults of Sevierville, Tenn.; juniors Alicia Almodovar of Port Saint Lucie, Fla.; Kylie Beinke of Cary; Courtney Cowman of Hamilton, N.J.; Brianna Markle of Charlotte; Rayshaun Sandlin of Knightdale; Tatianna Long of Kodiak, Alaska;, Sara Coon of Dallas, Texas; Katie Hopkins of Albemarle; Ashton Tibbitt of Sanford; and Tyler Elrod of Davidson; sophomores Jura Davis of Charlotte; Jordan Clifton of Garner; Allison Andrews of Sherrills Ford; Amanda Clements of China Grove; and freshmen Shannon O'Donnell of Land o ‘Lakes, Fla.; Maggie Saunders of Huntington, W.Va.; Iliana Rivera of Burlington; Laura Williams of Wellington, Fla.; Chelsea Retalic of Concord; Verity Pryor-Harden of Abilene, Texas; Pen Chance of Augusta, Ga.; Amanda Becker of Fort Mill, S.C.; Emily Olszewski of Erie, Pa.; Patrick Moore of Concord; Katyln Shaw of Mt. Airy; Ashley O'Donnell of Rehoboth Beach, Del.; and Michelle Newberger of Lutz, Fla.

"Huck Finn"tickets are $12 for adults and $10 for senior citizens and non-Catawba Students. Parents are advised that the production may be disturbing to elementary aged and younger children due to the show's language and violent situations. For more details, please call the Catawba College Theatre Box Office at (704) 637-4481.


PhotosPHOTOS: "Huck Finn" Theatre Production

Info Another Run for Billy Burke's 'Huck Finn' (

InfoTheatre Arts and Upcoming Productions

InfoCampus Maps and Directions


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