Theater Review: DESSA ROSE (Bailiwick Chicago at Victory Gardens in Chicago)

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by Lawrence Bommer on March 10, 2014

in Theater-Chicago

SOUL MATES FROM 167 YEARS AGO

“Oh, we have paid for our children’s place in the world. We have paid again and again.” This assertion of achievement rings terribly true after two and a half hours of Dessa Rose. This characteristically urgent offering from Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, creators of Ragtime and Once on This Island, holds its own with its illustrious predecessors. As with these, the two-act musical blends folklore and fact, holding a mirror to the past to reflect what suddenly seems good about the present. It could hardly be reflected better than in Lili-Anne Brown’s driving staging, a welcome local premiere for Bailiwick Chicago.

Sydney Charles and Harmony France in Bailiwick Chicago’s production of DESSA ROSE.

Based on Sherley Anne Williams’ historical novel, this picaresque, proto-feminist saga, set 14 years before the Civil War, imagines a happier solution to slavery than that bloody carnage allowed. Flaherty’s stirring songs, which combine the syncopated verve and spiritual uplift of Ragtime with the bouncy abandon of Once on This Island, depict an unlikely partnership, a strange but ultimately convincing case of sisterly solidarity.

On one side is 15-year-old Dessa Rose, a runaway slave who, defending herself against a white overseer-rapist, is implicated in a slave rebellion, her lover killed and her child as homeless as she is. Giving her shelter from this storm is Ruth, an Alabama farmer whose husband forsook her: Now isolated in the Glen, her pinewood plantation, decent but unheroic Ruth offers a mutually beneficial sanctuary to slaves turned sharecroppers. (The kindness she received from her “mammy” Dorcas helps to humanize this unwilling enslaver.)

Jayson ‘JC’ Brooks, Harmony France, Sydney Charles and Steven Perkins with the cast of Bailiwick Chicago’s production of DESSA ROSE.

Ruth takes in this “devil woman” (as Dessa is called because of her fierce resistance to bondage and brutality). Nursing their children (female bonding at its best), they slowly discover each other’s humanity, no small feat in a benighted land where only white folks are said to have souls. (The musical also heavily implies that, because of sexism and misogyny, a white woman and a black slave suffer in different degrees from the same oppression.)

Emblematic of unearned masculine privilege is the oral-history writer Nehemiah. Intent on chronicling Dessa’s revolt against her chains, he finds himself obsessed with this teenage freedom fighter. When she flees her jail, he becomes an American version of Javert, doggedly pursuing Dessa—then Ruth—as they prosecute their “scheme.” (This improbable scam involves Ruth posing as a slave owner willing to sell her chattels—who, after being duly purchased, escape and run back to Ruth to be sold again and again, exploiting slave auctions to raise a whopping $30,000.) In this way Dessa, her companion Nathan (who loves Ruth, despite their differences) and other survivors “made themselves free.”

Jasondra Johnson, Harmony France and Sydney Charles in Bailiwick Chicago’s production of DESSA ROSE.

Alas, their stories end well before the war. So it’s anyone’s guess how conditional is the happiness that’s delivered to our present in “We Are Descended,” the opening and closing number. But, reality enough for any night at the theater, these two dozen gorgeous songs sing for themselves.

Played against Megan Truscott’s battered, earth-toned set, the dozen performers create stirring storytelling. Jasondra Johnson brings earth-mother intensity to Dorcas, especially in the beautiful ballad “White Milk and Red Blood.” Jayson “JC” Brooks and Jaymes Osborne offer sturdy support as would-be lovers Nathan and Kaine. David Schlumpf plays persecuting Nehemiah—a haunted hunter—with the implacability of a Biblical villain.

(front row, l to r) Harmony France, Jayson “JC” Brooks and Sydney Charles (second row, l to r) Jasondra Johnson, Eunice Woods and Sasha Smith, (back row, l to r) Gilbert Domally, Steven Perkins and Jaymes Osbourne in Bailiwick Chicago’s production of DESSA ROSE.

First and finally are two wonderful women wrenchingly ahead of their times. The well-named Harmony France brings out Ruth’s civilizing neediness in “At the Glen.” Sydney Charles’ ardent Dessa Rose blooms in every song, never more so than in her glowing solo “Something of My Own.” That’s all she wanted. It’s not too much.

photos by Michael Brosilow

Dessa Rose
Bailiwick Chicago
Victory Gardens’ Richard Christiansen Theater
2433 N. Lincoln Ave. in Lincoln Park
ends on April 5, 2014
for tickets call 773-871-3000 or visit VG

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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