Monday, April 28, 2008

Dissing Dessa

Shows like Dessa Rose (now at the New Rep through May 18) are a critic's nightmare. The topic is slavery (hard to carp about a critique of that), and the laudable intent is to recall the forgotten voices of the women (and maybe the men) who suffered under its cruelty. And the cast is uniformly terrific; indeed, the voices here are the best heard in Boston in months, if not years - and these folks can act, too.

So am I a bad person if I hated it? Does it mean I have a secret sympathy with racism and sexism (the show posits an unlikely bond between a rich white woman and a runaway slave)? No, of course not - it only means I can't stand sanctimonious shows which pound into us messages we all long ago absorbed (or somehow figured out all by ourselves). For make no mistake, there's no bloom on Dessa Rose - indeed, this bouquet to victimhood is a real stinker, only made palatable by its okay (but hardly great) pseudo-gospel score, which is given a far better performance here than it deserves by a cast that could probably raise the roof with "Happy Birthday to You."

But to enjoy the vocal performances you have to continually ignore the show itself, which is the work of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (who, tellingly, last collaborated on Seussical), with a book from lyricist Ahrens that's all but incoherent - major plot points go missing, and characters sometimes seem to be different ages even within the same scene. Flitting from one atrocity to the next with an alacrity that would embarrass most hacks (poor Dessa's beloved is murdered, then she's branded, then imprisoned, then nearly raped), Dessa Rose comes off as not so much a vehicle for outrage as merely outrageous, not to mention fatuously manipulative (indeed, somehow the bond it ditzily tries to convey between liberal white women and the victims of slavery goes peculiarly wrong; its all-too-contemporary sexual politics feels like an unintentional insult to both the slaves and the actual feminist abolitionists who tried to help them).

I'm not suggesting, of course, that real events like those portrayed in Dessa Rose never occurred; they did occur; white people did this to black people, and not so long ago, either. The fact that we don't have an American Holocaust Museum in Washington is a national embarrassment - that is, if we pretend for a moment that this country can still be embarrassed about something - and we could build next to it an American Genocide Museum, while we were in the mood to take a look in the mirror, to account for our campaign against Native Americans. But of course that will never happen - instead we indulge tripe like Dessa Rose, which merely offers us exploitation of tragedy; it's a kind of Oprah-driven thrill ride for white guilt that absolves us, via our tears, of any responsibility for our history. Where, oh, where, is the play about slavery that aspires to more than melodrama? That develops real characters, facing real dilemmas, and struggling against oppression with a flawed perspective, without the knowledge that history is on their side? Now that's a show I'd like to see.

But in the meantime, I suppose I'll have to settle for enjoying the chops of this cast, in which local powerhouses Leigh Barrett and Todd Alan Johnson have to all but sweat to keep up. The powerful, light-on-his-feet Edward M. Barker is already known to Boston audiences, but the startling brace of newcomers is spearheaded by the heartbreakingly raw Uzo Aduba, who gives Dessa the kind of commitment that almost makes her authentic. Aduba is provided agile, versatile back-up by De'Lon Grant (above left with Aduba), Dee Crawford (who appeared in last fall's Streetcar), Joshua W. Heggie, and A'lisa D. Miles. I'd love to see any of these folks again - just not in Dessa Rose! Indeed, the unintended irony of this show is that we had to wait for a musical about slaves to be introduced to most of them. Will I see Mr. Grant in the next Sondheim from SpeakEasy? Mr. Barker would be a natural for Cole Porter, it seems to me, and Ms. Aduba would be a fierce addition to any cast (she'll be seen next in the New York revival of Godspell). Will real color-blind casting ever come to the rescue of these and so many other fine performers who happen to be people of color?

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