Sometimes you can tell from the very first moment. The opening line of Dessa Rose, sung by its heroine and taken up by the ensemble, is “We are descended/from a long/strong line/of women.” “What?” you say to yourself. “No men?” And from that point on the show has lost its credibility. Biology may not be destiny, but it’s still a basic reality that we have to face. And as it goes on, Dessa Rose confirms your early suspicions, by facing further and further away from reality, till it gets hopelessly snarled in its own absurdity.
This is a pity for several reasons: So much skill and care have been lavished on the piece; so much of it is thoughtfully written and gracefully done; its cast is so full of gifted and appealing artists. That it should be so hopelessly misguided at every step seems unfathomable. And its subject is slavery in the pre-Civil War South, the most brutalizing reality in American history, the consequences of which we still live with. A work that wants to confront such a topic shoulders a heavy burden, but that’s no excuse for dodging into Dessa Rose‘s mode of oversimplification, in which realities are faced, two-dimensionally, when convenient, and thrown away again as soon as the need for a kind of politically correct sentimentality takes over.
I don’t know the Sherley Anne Williams novel on which Ahrens and Flaherty’s musical is based. Its story, as told in the show, suggests something like a Harlequin romance with a plantation setting. Dessa Rose (LaChanze) is a pregnant slave girl jailed for killing her master and igniting a slave rebellion. Escaping, she is brought by other runaway slaves to the isolated farm of Ruth (Rachel York), who is tolerant and politically prescient enough to abet the slaves’ escape and win the mistrustful Dessa’s friendship. Between the convolutions with which Ahrens and Flaherty tell this story and its escalating implausibility, one is hard put to feel anything for the characters; the show’s main interest is which aspect of history will be falsified next. The actors make valiant efforts to ground the material in some kind of authenticity: Besides LaChanze and York, Kecia Lewis, Michael Hayden, Norm Lewis, Rebecca Eichenberger, William Parry, and Eric Jordan Young are all standouts. But as with Ahrens and Flaherty’s previous Newhouse outing, A Man of No Importance, it’s hard to know why they thought this story could sing; they seem to have confused the proud wearing of liberal credentials with art.