The ArtsCenter in Carrboro will host “The Devil and Mark Twain,” a play written and performed by Paul Newell. The play pulls threads about ethics in race and authorship as Twain struggles to navigate writing “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and his autobiography.
“He got halfway through 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' and he didn’t know what to do with it,” Newell said. “Once he got that boy and the runaway slave on the river he didn’t know what to do with it. He actually threatened to burn it at one time.”
Newell wrote the play to showcase the collision and interplay of Mark Twain’s life and work. He twists the chronology so that the writing of “Huckleberry Finn” and his autobiography coincide.
“He’s looking over some old letters that he wrote to his mother and he sees one that is pretty openly racist,” Newell said. “The question is: does he include this in his autobiography or not? He’s struggling with these two things, his autobiography being his life and the adventures being his work. It’s the 'fessing up to his own life and the giving birth to what some call the greatest achievement of American literature.”
Like Twain, Newell largely works alone. But he does get help from collaborator Mark Cornell. Cornell is an award-winning playwright who’s worked in community theater for more than 20 years. The two met as members of a playwrights’ roundtable that produced several short works a year, but they decided to break off on their own, forming Full Nelson Theater.
“We left the playwrights’ roundtable because we just wanted to do longer work,” Cornell said. “I’m really there just to support him. Paul writes it, he directs himself, he rehearses at home, he sets up his whole living room like a stage. All I’m really there for is to provide support. Paul really spearheads the whole thing.”
Newell draws inspiration from his own experience with Mark Twain as a boy. Along with race, boyhood is integral to the story of this production.
“I, probably like 10 million other kids over many many decades, kind of got seduced by Tom Sawyer as a little kid,” Newell said. “I remember my brother – this was in the '50s – I was about eight or nine years old, were supposed to be in bed and my brothers reading it in the bunk below me with a flashlight and he wanted to share it with me. My first encounter with Mark Twain was my brother reading passages from Tom Sawyer. I was just very taken with the empowerment he gave to the world of boys.”
Newell’s interest in Twain as a character has been ongoing; he says this started in 2009 with a different play, but has continued to evolve as time goes on.
“I kept on running into things that were a darker, more serious side to Mark Twain,” Newell said. “There’s something far more cunning than that about him.”
While this is familiar territory for Newell, it’s a step forward for The ArtsCenter. After a hiatus, this will mark its return to live theater.
“We’re getting back into theatre because there’s a rich tradition of doing theater at The ArtsCenter,” said Dan Mayer, executive director of The ArtsCenter. “There’s not much live theater and live community theater in this part of the Triangle. We’d like to make that accessible and available to our participants and to audiences.”
The ArtsCenter, located in Carrboro, is a nonprofit which supports performing and visual arts throughout the year. It’s return to theatre is just one of its current projects. It will host another of Full Nelson Theater’s plays, a dramatic comedy about reincarnation, later this year.
"I think it’s very timely; it’s about race and about how perspectives on race change over time," Mayer said. “I think we’re still experiencing that in our society and our community right now. I hope a lot of students who are interested in race and history come and join us."
This play is a performance about race, about the struggle of authorship, and about Newell’s sense of Mark Twain’s truth. The play melds adaptations of Twain’s writing and total fiction.
“There are some wholesale things that are made up,” Newell said. “Hopefully the playgoer will be able to have an assessment in the spirit of what Huck Finn once said about Mark Twain: He told the truth mainly, there was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.’”
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