Review by Neal Weaver
The Chromolume Theatre at the Attic
Through February 25
This 2005 musical, here receiving its Los Angeles premiere, was written by Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music), based on the novel by Sherley Anne Williams. It’s set in the American South in 1847 and deals with two strong-minded, volatile women. Dessa Rose (Shaunté Tabb) is a feisty, determined slave girl of 16. Ruth (Abby Carlson) is a white lady from Charleston, S.C., with emphasis on the “lady.” She has been drilled in the appropriate behavior for a Southern lady by her stern, traditional mother (Claire Buchignani).
Dessa Rose is involved in a love affair with a fellow slave, Kaine (Bradley Alan Turner), and she is carrying his child. When a white overseer discovers Kaine playing his banjo for Dessa Rose, he accuses them of shirking their duty, knocks Kaine down, and smashes his banjo. Enraged, Dessa Rose protests violently. For this she is whipped and beaten, and sold south. There, another white man attempts to rape her. She fights him off, and bashes his head in with a large rock. She is jailed, shackled and condemned to death, but they can’t hang her till her baby is born. Journalist Nehemiah (Matt Mancuso) decides to interview her for a book he is hoping to write. But a slave woman working in the jail smuggles a tool to Dessa Rose to remove her shackles. When Nehemiah discovers her unshackled, the jig seems to be up. But she knocks him out and makes her escape. Nehemiah, furious at what he considers her betrayal of his “Christian” charity, vows to track her down.
Meanwhile, Ruth is being wooed by courtly gent Bertie (Mikhail Roberts), whom she falls for and marries. It soon emerges that Bertie is a gambler and con man who has fleeced Ruth’s father of large sums. Bertie takes her to his unfinished farm house, and more or less abandons her. Alone on the farm, and pregnant with Bertie’s child, she’s at a loss how to manage. But some runaway slaves take advantage of her gullibility and offer to help. Soon she has a whole cadre of runaways working and sharecropping the farm. She gives birth to a daughter and befriends one of the slaves, Nathan (Mykell Barlow), whom she’s strongly attracted to.
In the interim, a desperate and starving Dessa Rose has fallen in with a group of runaways. They take her to Ruth’s farm, where she immediately goes into labor and gives birth to a daughter. She is nursed back to health by Ruth, and since she has little milk for her baby, Ruth breast-feeds the child herself. The charged and ever-changing chemistry between the two women emerges, as each educates the other about the nature of slavery and the white responsibility. And, shorn of their prejudices, each gains in understanding and stature from their relationship.
Dessa Rose is a rich and satisfying musical that deserves to be better known than it is. And it is performed with spirit and passion, particularly by Tabb and Carlson. There is fine work by all the principals, who are ably supported by a large ensemble.
The barebones production is meticulously directed by James Esposito. And by eschewing the elaborate trappings of a Broadway musical, it throws into high relief the strength of the tale it is telling.
The Chromolume Theatre at the Attic, 5429 W. Washington Boulevard, Los Angeles. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m. (323) 205-1617 or www.crtheatre.com. Running time: two hours and 25 minutes.