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'Dessa Rose' a moving musical of antebellum South

'Ragtime' creators tell story of female and black solidarity

Published June 2005

By Lucy Komisar


Dessa Rose
Book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Based on a novel by Sherley Anne Williams
Directed and choreographed by Graciela Daniele

Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center
165 W. 65 St.

'Dessa Rose" is a charming, moving operatic theater piece about female and black solidarity during slavery.

A beautifully staged – almost balletic – piece, it recounts the plotted escape of slaves in 1847, led by an ornery young woman whose lover had been murdered and she beaten and tortured for killing his attacker. Dessa and the others are helped by Ruth, a white woman from Charleston society, whose gambler husband has left her alone on their isolated farm.

With book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty – the team that wrote "Ragtime" – the production combines literary and political sensitivity with consummate artistry. They offer a realistic, often brutal history of slavery with a feminist insight into how even upper-class women could be victims of male power.

Rachel York and LaChance
Rachel York and LaChance
Photos by Joan Marcus
The story is based on a novel by Sherley Anne Williams, a black woman who took two real stories – about a pregnant black woman who led a slave rebellion and a white woman on a farm who gave refuge to slaves – and wondered what would happen if the two women had met. The tale turns suspenseful when an erstwhile writer chronicling slave rebellions believes he has been betrayed and when Ruth and the slaves engage in an escape caper.

Dessa Rose
Dessa Rose
The music is often gospel-style work and freedom songs, and the cast, led by Kenita Miller as Dessa Rose and Rachel York as Ruth, is voice-perfect. Miller, who took over from LaChance, hospitalized for surgery, is ornery and tough. York displays Ruthís development from an insipid, inwardly fearful child of privilege to a woman who uses adversity to become self-aware and courageous.

Norm Lewis is a delight as Nathan, the black man who charms Ruth.

Rachel York and Nathan
Rachel York and Nathan
Graciela Danielís direction and choreography is seamless, with even ordinary movements of actors conjuring dance.

The set by Loy Arcenas – a plank floor and log bench against a wood stockade backdrop – provides a frontier sensibility.

This play will take its place in the canon established by "Porgy and Bess."

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