Theater Review: “Dessa Rose”
“Dessa Rose.” Photo Credit: Jay Paul.
Unexpectedly the sounds of birds – particularly the quacking of a duck – preludes director Richard M. Parison, Jr.’s ambitious and rich staging of Lynn Ahrens’ and Stephen Flaherty’s “Dessa Rose,” which is showing at the Firehouse Theatre. These sounds capture the idyllic, still beauty that – admittedly as a Midwesterner – can only be found in the plush terrain of the South.
But it’s coincidental that this production – which ruminates on the (touchy) subject matter of Southern slavery – should come at the heels of 1) North Carolina passing the anti-gay marriage Amendment One, and 2) Virginia denying the judgeship for an openly gay nominee.
So…what has changed here in the South besides displacing the slavery of one people (Black) to the oppression of another people (LGBT)? Wait, I hear there’s a new frozen yogurt shop opening somewhere near by – that’s progress! Unfortunately, gorgeous landscapes don’t equal liberal politics, now and almost one century and ½ ago, either.
Anyway, Desiree Roots’ performance as Dessa Rose, the black female protagonist, is full of harrowing depth and the huge ensemble lushly harmonizes during musical numbers that celebrate gospel hymns and African rhythms, boldly choreographed by Karen Getz.
Yet I had reservations toward Stacey Cabaj’s performance as Ruth Sutton, the white female protagonist: subtle intimations of “Eliza Doolittle” – particularly with her character’s marriage to an elderly gentleman and then a scene where she becomes a little tipsy – perniciously finds its way into her Southern characterization, along with some difficulty singing above the orchestra directed by Leilani Giles, making her the weakest link in this performance.
On the contrary, the standouts were Durron Marquis Tyre as Nathan and Todd Patterson as Harker, who portray a riveting duo of young black slaves, poking fun at – well – white people. Flippant and talented, these two provide the audience with barrels of humor (too much of the audience took the show too seriously though to laugh) in the second act of the production.
But the source material, impetuously redacted by Flaherty and Ahrens, does little to offer thoughtful commentary on race relations, especially since the production is an amalgamation of both fact and fiction, loosely based on the novel by Sherley Anne Williams about the fledgling friendship between Ruth and Dessa.
On top of this, extraneous issues of female oppression at the hands of men and interracial sexual relations between Ruth and Nathan inject their way into the narrative, acted upon a capacious set of burlap drapes, suggesting plantation drawing rooms and slave quarters, expertly designed by Todd Edward Ivins.
But clearly, the ratio of any kind of oppression between Dessa Rose and Ruth is not directly proportional, despite the authors’ attempts to make it seem as such. Dessa – a slave – sees her “husband” killed before her very eyes, and then she is whipped, jailed brutally and sexually abused. Ruth’s biggest problem is she has to endure 10 petticoats per day. Tragedy!
“Dessa Rose” runs through June 3 at the Firehouse Theatre Project. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit http://www.firehousetheatre.org/
Matthew Miller is the former arts editor and chief theater critic for GAYRVA.com. A Chicago native, he holds a B.A. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He currently resides in Richmond, VA and is a member of the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Matthew Miller on Twitter twitter.com/matthewkmiller
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