Tony and Emmy Award-winning actor Hal Holbrook brings his critically acclaimed one-man show, Mark Twain Tonight!, back to Oklahoma this Friday as part of The University of Central Oklahoma’s Broadway Tonight series.

Mark Twain Tonight! grew out of a college project in which Holbrook and his first wife, Ruby, interviewed each other playing notable literary characters, including Twain. He was still in his twenties when he began playing 70-year-old Twain.

While working a TV soap opera, Holbrook honed his show at a Greenwich Village night club, where he was seen by Ed Sullivan, who gave Holbrook’s Twain national exposure.

That break led to an acclaimed off Broadway run, which spawned multiple Broadway revivals, the second of which earned Holbrook a Tony Award in 1966.

Sixty years and more than 2,000 performances later, he has toured the world with the show.

Greg White, director and producer of the Broadway Tonight series, first encountered recordings of Holbrook’s take on the literary icon as a child.

“I’ve admired his mastery of the craft my entire life,” White said. “It’s such an honor to share this unparalleled quality of work with our community.”

Holbrook studied Twain’s life for decades, memorized more than 16 hours of his writing and adds material to his repertoire every year. The 90-minute performance alternates between essays, anecdotes and fictional pieces.

White said Holbrook is known to make changes to the program on the fly based on the tenor of the audience or to focus on current events.

“In preparation for the UCO performance, he specifically inquired about Oklahoma’s conceal and carry policy in the theater,” White said.

White said that there is a powerful, natural synergy between Holbrook and Twain. This bond allows him to use the late author’s words to offer relevant social commentary through the lens of satire on subjects from racism to religion.

The fact that Twain’s writing retains such potency is a testament to the man’s genius but is also, according to White, in part our own damned fault: “Mark Twain’s words will remain relevant as long as Americans continue to repeat the same social and political patterns.”

Eric Webb

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