(Note: after writing this blog post, I realized that I expose MANY plot points of “Dessa Rose.” So please take this as a big fat SPOILER ALERT and don’t read on if you don’t want to know what happens in the show.)
The production of “Dessa Rose” at the Firehouse has received many accolades and I’m glad for that. The show has clearly moved several of my critical compatriots in town and they have responded with hearty endorsements. Which is great: producing the show was a bold move and the Firehouse deserves as much audience as it can get for it.
I certainly was impressed by the production. Just walking into the theater, with the surprisingly deep stage populated with finely costumed actors and infused with atmospheric stage fog, was a transformative experience. The technical elements were stunning. I didn’t have space in my Style review to do justice to the fine work by Rebecca Cairns and Ann Hoskins, whose costumes firmly places the characters in the antebellum south, or to the moody, nuanced lighting design of Robert Perry.
But it wasn’t long after the show started that my enchantment dimmed. The generation shifting narration that forces both Desiree Roots as Dessa and Stacey Cabaj as Ruth to switch back and forth between youth and age is simply cumbersome. Also, for me, the narration seemed to echo the “why we tell the story” format of “Once on this Island” but in a clunkier and more pedantic way. Perhaps it was unfair to open my review by comparing “Dessa” to other Ahrens-Flaherty shows – why would the average theater-goer care, right?
Well, for this theater-goer, part of my eager anticipation for this show was the result of my adoration of their previous work and I couldn’t help but hear those echoes and find them wanting in comparison. The narration also highlighted a “…this happened and then this happened…” kind of feel to the episodic first act, complete with a complicating extended flashback. Part of the reason I enjoyed the second act so much more is that the focus was more on the relationships of the characters, the wonderfully unexpected dynamic of a plantation owner taking in runaway slaves almost inadvertently and her feeling their derision and having them teach her important lessons about life. These were quietly surprising and engaging scenes. They still had little hiccups – as incredible a performer as Durron Tyre is, in Ahren’s story his noble Nathan strays dangerously close to one of those magical Negro stereotypes – but they affected me more then all of the escapes and pregnancy-related melodramatics of the first act.
Throughout the show, I kept waiting for that moment where I would really care for these characters, feel their pain, experience the transformations they were going through. Musicals are generally great at engendering this kind of response because the music operates on a different level than just the words, soaring melodies or bold phrases giving the plot gyrations a big psychic push. But as well delivered as the songs were by an excellent orchestra led by Leilani Giles and the cast of exceptional voices, they struggled to resonate with me and, apparently with the rest of the audience in the theater with me that night. Most songs came and went without applause, perhaps in part because of the flow of the show but more likely, I think, because people’s emotional buttons weren’t being pushed. “In the Bend of My Arm” is a very lovely song and was the first time I really took notice of how the music was enhancing the story. Then when Katrinah Carol Lewis ripped into “White Milk and Red Blood” my heart finally raced like I had been hoping it would, in part because of Lewis’s skill and in part because I think the song really connected.
Another thing I found discomfiting was what I considered a weirdly shifting moral and emotional compass in the story. Usually I am more than happy to be discomfited in the theater; some shows that pushed me out of my comfort zone are among my favorites (“The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?” comes to mind most readily). The practice of slavery was savagely and horribly wrong; there is no question about that. But Dessa’s owner’s killing of Kaine (a fabulous performance by Keydron Dunn that I also didn’t get a chance to lavish praise on) seems so arbitrary and in contrast to later callous sentiments about “not killing perfectly good merchandise” in reference to Dessa’s unborn child. So all white people were brutal AND stupid, is that the message? When Dessa kills her potential rapist, I understand that we’re supposed to be OK with that. She is being taken advantage of by someone who sees her as nothing but property to be exploited. But then when Ruth is nearly raped later in the show, the dynamic is so completely different, with Ruth clearly flirting and enjoying it and then the attacker being run off with pillows, well it’s almost comic. Are these incidents meant to be equivalent? Are the similarities to Dessa’s earlier scene supposed to highlight something? If Ruth had killed her attacker, would the audience be OK with that?
The two strains of interracial attraction also confused me. Nehemiah (an always impressive Nick Aliff) is clearly falling for Dessa who almost callously takes advantage of that attraction to escape. Again, we’re supposed to be OK with that because Dessa is our heroine and she was unfairly sentenced to die. But then the other “forbidden” attraction, between Nathan and Ruth, where Nathan is Ruth’s savior is a completely redemptive situation. So is the subtext that relationships between white men and black women were always fraught with unfair power dynamics while those between black men and white women weren’t? I guess I would have liked to see a little more frisson as a result of the Ruth/Nathan affair to show that interracial love was always problematic, no matter what the gender mix was.
Finally, for a show about the bitterness of slavery, some aspects of it came off without the impact that I would have expected. When Dessa is traveling with a bunch of other imprisoned slaves, they sing an uptempo song, surprisingly positive about their circumstance. The scheme that Nathan hatches that essentially involves repeatedly swindling buyers seems like it would be terrifying. The slaves would be sold over and over into unknown situations, somehow confident that they would be able to escape. It seems like a plan fraught with danger but only a sliver of that comes across in one of the most intense scenes of the show, where Dessa is almost exposed because of her branding. The effectiveness of that scene made me wish for a show that was just the second act allowing more of the scheme to play out for the audience.
While that seems like a list of complaints, I found plenty to like about this show. As I mentioned in my review, I generally appreciated Richard Parison’s direction and he cast some exceptional performers. Among those who haven’t received enough recognition are Todd Patterson as Harker who makes a fine compliment to Tyre’s Nathan and Fran Coleman whose strong soprano voice I hope will be heard on more Richmond stages in the future. The most telling emotional point where Ruth realizes that she doesn’t know Dorcus’s real name is well dramatized, a high point for both Cabaj and Lewis. I also applaud a show that doesn’t shy away from the reality of breast-feeding and the underplayed importance of Ruth taking over that function for Dessa. I ended my review on a positive note because of good things like these.
As part of my reviewing process, I generally refrain from reading other reviews until I’m done writing mine. After I’m finished, though, I’m often ravenous for the opinions of others. Richmond reviewers have been positive about “Dessa Rose” but those reviewing the New York production were more mixed, with the word “dour” appearing in both the NYTimes review and the TheatreMania review. While I used that word comparing “Dessa” to “Seussical,” I don’t think that’s the final impression left by the Richmond production. It’s an ultimately triumphant experience, but I do think the road to that ending is a bumpy one.