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'Splittin' the Raft' puts new spin on classic 'Huck Finn Adventures'

Rob Hadaway, Annie Power, Shannon Sparks, John Stewart

Rob Hadaway, Annie Power, Shannon Sparks, John Stewart

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Rob Hadaway, Annie Power, Shannon Sparks, John Stewart

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Harrison Long

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Kennesaw State University student John Stewart rehearses a scene from “Splittin’ the Raft.”

As a veteran actor, director and instructor, Harrison Long has been involved in more than his share of productions that light up stages.

But rarely has the former Rockdale County resident been so struck by a play as he has been by Scott Kaiser's "Splittin' the Raft," an adaptation of Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," as interpreted by orator, ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

An associate professor and the head of acting at Kennesaw State University's department of theater, performance studies and dance, Long is the director of "Splittin' the Raft," performed by KSU students. In late September, the play opened in the school's Black Box Theatre and is now on a seven-city tour of North Georgia schools, theaters and the Sautee Nacoochee Center.

"It's an important play," said Long of "Splittin' the Raft," which the Arts Association in Newton County will present free of charge at 7 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 7 at Porter Hall on the campus of Newton High School. "It reminds us of where we've come from and where we're going. It holds up our history against the noble standards laid down by our forefathers.

"It also reminds us (about) living up to the goal of equality, (and) of our aspirations to achieve equity in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. That's not something we achieved long ago -- instead, there are things that we constantly must aspire toward and check ourselves against, like any noble standard."

The two-hour, two-act play features a cast of four (plus one musician) covering some 31 characters, including Huckleberry Finn, his loyal friend Jim and Douglass. Although not described as a musical (and not to be confused with the 1985 Broadway hit "Big River"), "Splittin' the Raft's" musical side showcases not only black spirituals and compositions by Stephen Foster, but also original music by KSU's Judy Cole.

Long said patrons will have the opportunity to be both entertained and enlightened by the production.

"It's highly entertaining, it is musical, it's hysterically funny but it's also potent with meaning," he said. "Mary Poppins said, 'A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,' and that's an apt metaphor here. It's a highly entertaining piece but people are going to leave the theater not only feeling uplifted and entertained but they'll leave the theater with something to think about."

A Cobb County native, Long moved to Conyers at the age of 9 when his father, the late Nat Long, was appointed pastor of the Conyers First United Methodist Church in Olde Town. He holds a bachelor's degree in acting from Florida State and a master's degree from Southern Methodist and recalled that he became enamored with the dramatic arts at an early age.

"I decided I wanted to be an actor when I was in eighth grade at Conyers Middle School," he said. "I was among the first students in what was then the new Conyers Middle School building. I worked with the Depot Players and at Rockdale County High School with Linda Wise, who was the revered and highly respected drama teacher there."

With a diverse style that accommodates everything from Shakespeare to contemporary drama to musical theatre, Long has performed in New York City and with regional troupes like the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, Tennessee Repertory Theatre, Oregon Cabaret Theatre and the Utah, Texas and North Carolina Shakespeare Festivals.

A founding company member of the Georgia Ensemble Theatre, Long has appeared on Atlanta stages in productions by the Alliance Theatre, Georgia Shakespeare Festival, Theatre in the Square, ART Station, Theatrical Outfit, Theatre Emory and the Horizon Theatre.

He worked as the dialogue coach for the CBS series "Dangerous Curves" and has taught at Marymount Manhattan College, the University of Tennessee, St. John's University, Southern Methodist, Georgia State, Clayton College and the Summer Theatre Institute at Columbia University.

He's been at KSU for six years and lives in Marietta with his wife and two sons.

Recognizing the highly emotional nature of "Splittin' the Raft" (which, in keeping with its source material, uses "the n-word" in the dialogue), Long said anyone who sees the play will not only learn about history but will also learn a little about themselves.

"At its core, the story of Huck Finn is a coming of age story," he said. "It's been referred by many people as the greatest American novel. Ernest Hemingway was quoted as saying 'There's not been anything better before or since.'

"The story is uniquely American and captures so much about the American spirit, about American aspirations, and about who we are at our best and who we are at our worst. Even though this novel was published well over 100 years ago, it hasn't lost its vitality, and through this tale we're still reminded of who we are."

Prior to its staging at Newton High School, "Splittin' the Raft" opened on the road at the Serenbe Playhouse in Chattahoochee Hills.

After a daytime performance for Newton County students and the evening reprise at Porter Hall, the play will also be presented at Maynard Jackson High School (Oct. 14), the Strand Theatre on the downtown Square in Marietta (Oct. 28), New Manchester High School in Douglasville (Nov. 4), Lumpkin County High School (Nov. 11) and Sautee Nacoochee Center, also on Nov. 11.

For more information about Kennesaw State University's production of "Splittin' the Raft," visit www.kennesaw.edu/theatre/SplittinTheRaf. For more information on the Arts Association in Newton County, call 770-786-8188 or visit www.newtoncountyarts.org.