Dessa Rose is the brainchild of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the team behind the Broadway hits Ragtime and Seussical. This is the first time it is staged in Europe, after its debut on Broadway in 2005.
It is based on the homonymous book of Sherley Anne Williams. The acclaimed historical novel is based on two actual incidents: In 1829 in Kentucky, a pregnant black woman helped lead an uprising of a group of slaves headed to the market for sale. She was sentenced to death, but her hanging was delayed until after the birth of her baby. In North Carolina in 1830, a white woman living on an isolated farm was reported to have given sanctuary to runaway slaves.
Set in the antebellum south of 1847, the plot tells the story of Dessa, a rebellious and hardened 16-year-old slave, and Ruth a Southern Belle with “prospects”. The two women, set apart by the seemingly unbridgeable racial divide, are destined to lead completely separate and different lives, when they are brought together by chance and later form a forbidden and certainly ambivalent alliance, each striving to overcome entrenched racial and social norms.
Dessa, a farm hand, falls in love and consequently pregnant. When she is sold for disobedience she starts a slave rebellion in a fight to assert her freedom. She is condemned to die by hanging, but manages to escape with the aid of other slaves and ends up in Ruth’s plantation. Ruth is married to the for-ever-absent gambler Bertie, shunned by her family because of his debts and is trapped in a half-finished house, alone surrounded by slaves whose “provenance” she ignores. A con game – selling fugitive slaves, have them run away again and then reselling them elsewhere – is their means of escape from the roles and concepts of gender and race that have been imposed on them and will allow them to start over in a place where slavery is abolished.
Andrew Keates adapted the play expertly for the limited space of Studio 2 and produced an energetic and well-orchestrated musical, using minimum stage props, aided greatly by the musical direction of Dean Austin and his team of musicians. Cynthia Erivo uses expertly her unquestionable vocal talent and Cassidi Janson is engaging as the desperate mistress – turned – abolitionist, while Edward Baruwa dominated the stage with his warm and quick-witted performance.
The production would most definitely benefit though from a bigger venue. The ensemble’s performance felt constrained and the audience sitting in the first-raw had to undergo the occasional foot shuffling to avoid props and actors. Especially during the first part, the confined space and the multiple parallel narratives stifled the performance and made it occasionally hard to follow. The show hit its stride in the second part though and finished on a note of optimistic and hard-earned bonhomie.