When the Eight O'Clock Theatre production of Big River opens Friday, the audience will see a musical adaptation of Mark Twain's classic novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
They will also see a homegrown talent share the stage with a talent found through community theater's regional network, said Linda Woodruff-Weir, the production's director.
Huck will be portrayed by Terry Farley, a theater student at the University of Central Florida and 2006 graduate of Clearwater Central Catholic High School. He came of age on the stage inside the Largo Cultural Center. His first performance, at 13, was in Carousel (2001), followed by parts in State Fair (2002) and Dracula (2006).
Jim, the slave who shared Huck's raft while floating down the Mississippi River, will be portrayed by Cranstan Cumberbatch of St. Petersburg. He received the 2010 Lary Award for favorite actor in a musical for his performance in St. Pete Little Theater's Smokey Joe's Cafe. This is Cumberbatch's first gig in Largo.
The African-American community does not traditionally come out for auditions at Eight O'Clock Theatre, said Woodruff-Weir, 61. No African-Americans auditioned for the part of Jim.
"It was through making phone calls to other groups that we were lucky to get Cranstan," she said.
Big River includes themes found in Twain's 1884 novel — good vs. evil, civilization vs. wilderness and slavery vs. freedom.
Cumberbatch, 36, said the role is natural for him because he understands the mind-set of someone dealing with adversity.
"When it comes to my own ambitions in the entertainment world, I realized you have to overcome a lot of naysayers," he said, "people that don't understand what it takes when you are passionate about theater and that feeling when you can almost touch it and you have to just keep pressing to get there."
Farley, 22, said that while the demographics surrounding the Largo Cultural Center have been "older and white," that is slowly changing.
"It has to change," he said. "Theater is an expression of life, and that means to do theater correctly, there are so many sides, so many points of view.''
Woodruff-Weir agrees. "With more diversity, we'd be able to add more types of plays. For example we could do August Wilson's The Piano Lesson or Fences. They are lovely plays, and we just need to know we have the actors who can portray the parts."
Along with a life-size wooden raft that Huck and Jim ride down the river, the show also includes the music of Tony winner Roger Miller. Songs include Waitin' for the Light to Shine, Muddy Water and River in the Rain.
Cumberbatch, a Gibbs High School graduate who works as a behavioral therapist in St. Petersburg, gained his singing experience at his childhood church, 20th Street Church of Christ. He is impressed with the high-quality choreography, set and crew at Eight O'Clock Theatre, he said.
"This is great community theater, and in the Tampa Bay area, when it comes to community theater, audiences know they don't have to go to the Mahaffey or to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center to see a good production anymore," he said. "They can find it in their community."
What does he think needs to be done to lure more actors of color to Largo?
"Community theater is such a welcome opportunity for any actor to get exposure, and it's a great platform for true talent to be seen," he said. "(Diversity) will slowly happen, once theaters learn more about getting the word out."