It’s asking for trouble, this show about slavery in America, approaching the subject with a mixture of burning outrage and the healing balm of musical harmony. Although it was first produced nine years ago at New York’s Lincoln Centre, this is its European premiere, and the close incarceration of the Trafalgar’s basement space is grimly apt.
The trouble it asks for is a reflection of the trouble it portrays, namely the growth of white prosperity on the scarred backs of a supposed under-race. Coming so hard on the heels of Twelve Years A Slave, it looks bold to the point of foolhardiness.
Based on the novel of the same name by Sherley Anne Williams, it tells of the unorthodox friendship between the girl of the title and an older white woman, Ruth, a scuffed queen of the cotton field economy. In fact it tells of much besides, weaving this narrative thread with others concerning the pregnant young Dessa’s imprisonment and near-hanging for murder, the slaves’ lucrative scam of escaping immediately after being sold, and the obsessive white weirdo, Adam Nehemiah, who tries to chronicle the goings-on at the heart of a deceptively complex society.
All this it does through a combination of flashback, songs of testimony and brutal foreground drama. Musically, the resulting style is a peculiar hybrid of deep-felt tribute to the Southern Blues, the Soul which partially grew from it, and the joshing strains of ragtime; not forgetting that other form, the Musical Number, of which Dessa Rose has its share, and in which it is, paradoxically, at its most successful. This, remember, is the work of the eminent team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, creators of the Broadway hit Ragtime and a handful of other award-winners, including the Dr. Seuss musical Seussical, My Favourite Year, and A Man of No Importance. When it comes to the Musical Number, Ahrens and Flaherty know what they are doing.
When this works, as it does a couple of times in Dessa Rose, it is sublime and transcendent, allowing the song to shuffle off its context and float free for three forget-the-world minutes. The most triumphant example here is Dessa and her lover’s tender catalogue of sensual imagery, “In The Bend of My Arm.” If this Dessa seems strangely familiar, it is because she was the girl who, though failing to rescue the Simon Cowell musical at the Palladium, resoundingly disproved its title as the lead in “I Can’t Sing.” She is Cynthia Erivo, who graces this demanding part with rage and tenderness.
By the end of the second act, she and Cassidy Janson as Ruth develop an edgy rapport in song and dialogue, demonstrating what we suspected all along, that the whites are more gravely in exile from themselves than the workforce they allegedly control. It piles layers of meaning on to the final reprise of the show’s nearest thing to a theme tune, the spiritually derived “We Are Descended.”
In these objectives the production is dutifully – not slavishly – supported by a team of shape-shifters who are handling as many as three parts each. Particularly outstanding are the versatile Miquel Brown and Alexander Evans. Then there is Jon Robyns as the enigmatic outsider Nehemiah, a character whose appeal lies ironically in his lack of development. Here is a white journalist, a supposedly fearless seeker after a truth, with perhaps even a hint of Horatio’s mission in Hamlet… “ Let me speak to the yet unknowing world.”
Who is he? What and why is he? Is he plain vindictive in trying to expose the older Dessa as the murderer, the tabloid Devil Woman, that she once was? Or is he merely trying to tell it is as it is, free from the effective censorship of the oppressed? Then again, is he some hateful projection of such guilty white liberals as may be descended from him? God knows, although I’m not certain the show does, for all the sure-handed management by director Andrew Keates of his perilous, shifting-cargo material.
Then, just now, the morning after, I got it – I think – slow-brain that I am. We – whoever we are – have to stifle such self-styled whistleblowers in order that They can tell their story unmediated. This They seem to do in Dessa Rose, never mind the dramatic irony of having had their lines penned by Broadway aristocracy. This is not an easy show, and nor should it be.
Review by Alan Franks
Dessa Rose at Trafalgar Studios
Tuesday 29th July to Saturday 30th August 2014
Monday to Saturday, 7.45pm
Thursday and Saturday matinees, 3pm
Running time 2 hours including interval
Trafalgar Studios, 14 Whitehall, London SW1A 2DY