REVIEWS BYTheatre ReviewsTom Williams

Dessa Rose

Book and Lyrics by Lynn Ahernsbailiwick chicago theater

Music by Stephen Flaherty

Based on the Novel by Sherley Anne Williams

Directed by Lili-Anne Brown

Musical Director James Morehead

Produced by Bailiwick Chicago Theater

At the Victory Gardens Richard Christiansen Theater

Rich harmonies fuel the heartwarming foll chamber operetta

Bailiwick Chicago Theater, under the stylistic direction by Lili-Anne Brown,  have mounted a soaringly wonderful production of Sherley Anne Williams’ 1986 novel, Dessa Rose. This is a passionate work that effectively tells the hardship of pre-Civil War Southern black slaves in a chamber folk operetta. With music and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, Dessa Rose has a haunting score (with hints of their Ragtime score) filled with African and Southern field/work songs, R & B, containing rhythms and melodies together with early religious songs including folk and gospel sounds that produced an atmosphere of 1840’s on a plantation in South Carolina. Lynn Ahrens character and plot driven lyrics emphasize the emotion, the pain and the passion of the black slaves. Her strong book anchors the piece.

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The story is about two strong-willed women, Dessa Rose (Sydney Charles) and Ruth Sutton (Harmony France) whose stories intertwine. Told in flashback with the two principles as narrators, Dessa Rose is a fictional account of two woman who actually lived in the antebellum Deep South in 1847.

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 Dessa Rose is a fifteen year old slave girl who leads a rebellion after she is cruelly beaten by her master who kills her lover and father of her unborn child. She is captured, sentenced to death but the owner waits until she has her baby so as not to waste “perfectly good property.” We see Ruth marry a strange man who leaves her alone (with her nanny) on a rural North Alabama farm while he travels to places unknown leaving Ruth to survive by herself.

When writer Adam Nehemiah (David Schlumpf) visits Dessa Rose to write her story as the “devil woman” who led a slave rebellion, he is captivated with the aura and charm exuded by her until he is lulled into unshackling her leg irons allowing her to escape her prison call.

Ruth loses her nanny (Jasondra Johnson) as she learns to rely on the kindness of black migrant workers who stumble upon her rural farm. Among them is Nathan (JC Brooks) who becomes a trusted worker and lover to Ruth. The farm becomes a hideout for runaway slaves with Ruth offering them unquestioning sanctuary. Dessa Rose and Ruth butt heads as the two strong-willed independent women clash but also cooperate due to common necessity. When Nathan devises a scheme to make the group enough money for them to head west away from the yoke of slavery, Ruth actively joins them to earn enough cash for her to also escape the confines of the rural farm.

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Dessa Rose is sung almost throughout in a folksy chamber operetta style featuring smooth, haunting multi-part harmonies, strong passionate solos and colorful work songs, religious hymns and celebratory spirituals. The movement and dance underscore the pain, the glory and the emotional outlet experience during the hardships suffered by the slaves. James Morehead’s seven person orchestra deftly played the exquisite Flaherty score heavenly.

Harmony France is strong yet empathetic as Ruth whose iron will and rich voice lift her character into heroine status. Sydney Charles, as Dessa Rose, gave a eye-popping yet, subtle  and compelling performance as Dessa Rose. Her passion comes through in her haunting songs. The rivalry and love-hate between Charles and France was plausible and  genuine.  The marvelous harmonies from the ensemble  and the powerful belts from  Jasondra Johnson, especially in the gospels songs, makes this production of Dessa Rose a major event.  JC Brooks Nathan emerges as the charismatic leader who takes over the struggle for freedom and wins Ruth’s hand.

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Dessa Rose is a tale of courage, suffering, redemption and friendship in a memorable story that reinforces the power of the human spirit. Strength and love can transcend the barriers between people. It is refreshing to find out how tough our ancestors actually were. Dessa Rose is an beautiful American folk operetta where the human spirit is celebrated through song within an original story. This is an uplifting show that celebrates the human spirit. It is a gem!

Highly Recommended

Tom Williams

Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

Date Reviewed: March 14, 2014

Jeff Recommended

For more info checkout the Dessa Rose page at

At Victory Gardens Biograph second floor theater, 2433 N. Lincoln, Chicago, IL, call 773-871-3000,  tickets $40, Thursdays thru Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 2 pm, running time is 2 hours, 15 minutes with intermission, through April 5, 2014

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