James Monroe Iglehart rides ‘Big River’ home

Courtesy PhotoImportant role: In his fourth appearance in the part

It’s been a long round-trip from the Bay Area to Broadway and back for James Monroe Iglehart. The Hayward native opens this Saturday in the musical “Big River” for TheatreWorks, and the homecoming is manifold.

It’s his fourth turn as Jim, a slave in search of his freedom who journeys down the river in the Tony-winning musical.

“The first time was as an understudy,” he says of the 1998 production at the now-shuttered American Musical Theatre of San Jose. “I come back to it this time with more maturity, more clarity. The part feels better on me now.”

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He’s also returning to the company that gave him his greatest career boost so far and took him on another journey that had him traveling in intermittent spurts for almost a decade.

Presented as part of its 2002 New Works Festival, the musical “Memphis” returned as a TheatreWorks world premiere main stage production in 2003, continuing intermittent development in San Diego, Seattle and Manhattan before opening an almost three-year run on Broadway in 2009.

Iglehart rode the roller-coaster that included a Tony for best musical, recording the cast album and appearing in the taped production released to home video. “It was one of the greatest rides ever,” he says, “and I got to ride it with my friends.”

The score for “Big River” was the sole Broadway outing by country artist Roger Miller, best known for hit songs such as “King of the Road.” Miller appeared briefly in the 1985 production, but Iglehart was much more familiar with the composer-performer’s work on “Robin Hood,” the 1973 animated Disney film.

“He played the rooster storyteller and I can sing all of his songs by heart, right now, at 38 years old,” he laughs.
The deep-voiced actor is also quite familiar with the source material for “Big River” — Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” — and with the challenges of presenting a work that includes several utterances of today’s most politically charged racial epithet.

“Each generation has its own way of dealing with words,” he says. “I think the character of Jim was written with a sort of dignity. If you take that word away, he’s simply a strong African-American character in a book, which was especially progressive for that time.”

That the word is heard in the musical makes sense to Iglehart, who prefers historical accuracy over a more comfortable revisionist perspective. “Some folks would like to forget all the negative things that happened in the past,” he says. “We can’t do that.”

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