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Issue Date:  April 15, 2005

Examining slavery in song

'Dessa Rose' depicts an unlikely friendship in the antebellum South


The cruelty of slavery and the human struggle for dignity are portrayed in “Dessa Rose,” the lively new off-Broadway musical at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. The play depicts an unexpected friendship between two women, one an abused runaway slave and the other a proper Southern belle who harbors escaped slaves after her husband abandons her.

The show, based on the 1986 novel by Sherley Anne Williams, brings together two people whose partnership isn’t unexpected: the musical team of Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music), who have proved they belong together. As with their past shows, among them “Ragtime,” “Seussical: The Musical” and “A Man of No Importance” (reviewed in NCR Nov. 15, 2002), they had rich material with which to work. The characters were inspired by two women Ms. Williams read about. The slave had been condemned to death for leading an uprising of a coffle, a group of chained slaves, in 1829 Kentucky. Because she was pregnant, her hanging was put off until she delivered the child, which would be sold into slavery. Ms. Williams learned about the incident from an essay by Angela Davis, then traced Ms. Davis’ source to Herbert Aptheker’s American Negro Slave Revolts, where she read about another woman who was taking in runaway slaves.

“How sad, I thought then, that these two women never met,” Ms. Williams writes in an author’s note in the book.

Luckily for readers of the novel and the musical’s audience, Ms. Williams decided to imagine what would have happened if the slave had gotten away and took the fictional liberty of bringing the women together. In both versions, that is where the story really began to involve me -- when the two women come together at the remote Alabama farmhouse where Ruth (Rachel York) is waiting in vain for her gambler husband to return. Dessa (LaChanze) arrives exhausted and ready to give birth, having led the uprising that freed her and her fellow slaves and then having escaped from jail.

To this point, the stories of the women are told separately. I found this worked better in presenting Ruth’s earlier genteel life in Charleston, S.C. In the novel, the description of Dessa’s abuse by her owner vividly and excruciatingly portrays the brutality of slavery, but turning that account into a song made it seem more like slavery-lite to me. This may just be a matter of perspective. A friend I spoke with at intermission who had not read the book found the song appropriately disturbing.

The musical did get the upper hand in a later song, “Twelve Children.” Singing to her baby about the loss of her 11 siblings, Dessa names them all so they won’t be forgotten, nor will her mother’s pain at losing them. “Some sold away./ Some passed away./ Some run./ Twelve children brought from her body,/ all gone but one./ I tell these names/ the way my mammy told these names/lest her poor children/pass from livin’ mem’ry.”

It is a touchingly powerful testament to another result of slavery -- the decimation of families. Ms. LaChanze sings it with warmth, sadness and determination that things will be different -- and I do mean she sings it, not screams it in the eardrum-piercing way that ruins so many Broadway songs. It is one of the loveliest moments in this lovely show and gives a power to the loss that is even stronger than the novel’s account.

“Twelve Children” also highlights one of the major themes of “Dessa Rose,” both the novel and the musical -- the need to remember. Ms. Ahrens, in writing the book for the show, keeps this message in the forefront by having Dessa and Ruth, now elderly, interrupt the show at key points to explain incidents, making it obvious they are sharing their stories with a future generation. This helps the musical overcome some of the confusion I found in the early parts of the novel in which Dessa’s shifting thoughts and dialect were often hard to follow. The actresses simply step aside, bend over and speak in weaker voices, giving us the necessary narration without harming the flow of the story. It also allows us to see how the women’s relationship moves from misunderstanding to trust and finally to respect. Ruth sees close up the evils of slavery and Dessa learns that a white woman is in many ways also enslaved in that society. They learn to depend on each other, especially as they work together in a risky scheme to free themselves from their oppressors and take control of their own destinies.

Ms. Williams, a National Book Award nominee for her first book of poetry, The Peacock Poems, and a Caldecott Medal winner for Working Cotton, her first children’s book, died at 54 before the musical was completed. She had been working on a sequel to Dessa Rose, her only novel, which has for years been taught in women’s and African-American studies courses. As Ms. Williams described the story, it is “as true as if I myself had lived it. Maybe it is only a metaphor, but I now own a summer in the 19th century.”

And now, along with the book, the musical lets us own that summer too. As Old Dessa says at the close, echoing Dessa of the novel: “This is why I tell you children this story of ours, and why I have you say it back. I hope you never will forget what it cost us to own our own selves. We paid for our children’s place in this world.”

Retta Blaney’s latest book, Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life through the Eyes of Actors, features interviews with Kristin Chenoweth, Edward Herrmann, Michael McElroy, Liam Neeson, Phylicia Rashad, Vanessa Williams and others.

Related Web site

Lincoln Center Theater

National Catholic Reporter, April 15, 2005

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