Set in the deep south of Alabama, the year is 1847: it’s a time of masters and slaves, racial inequality is rife and people are bought and sold on the basis of the colour of their skin. Dessa Rose’s large cast of fifteen populate every nook and cranny of the already cramped Trafalgar Studio’s tiny stage. A tapestry of powerhouse voices, live accompaniment and the rich and soulful sounds of Lynn Ahrens’ and Stephen Flaherty’s gospel-infused score, consume all the available space. From the opening number of Dessa Rose it is apparent that the British premiere of this American musical is entertainment of the highest calibre. There was tangible air in the auditorium that we were about the witness something truly special, a collective sentiment that undoubtedly lived up to our expectations and perhaps even surpassed it.
The eponymous Dessa Rose (Cynthia Erivo), is a feisty 16-year-old with an intrinsic need to fight for what she believes in by stamping out any forms of injustice that cross her path. Dessa Rose’s unshakeable will to do what is right is what drives her to lead a rebellion against her slave master, an act so disobedient that she is brutally beaten, placed in an inhumane sweatbox and is sent to prison to be hung. Despite enduring a multitude of unspeakable hardships, Dessa Rose remarkably remains defiant. Her infamy is revered by her own community and feared by others who brand her the she-devil. Upon hearing of her remarkable tale, an unsavoury author called Adam Nehemiah (Jon Robyns) visits her in jail, keen to commit her story to paper. However, Nehemiah underestimates Dessa Rose’s intoxicatingly cunning nature, which is what ultimately sparks his downfall.
After the interval, the focus shifts away from Dessa’s Rose’s plight and instead casts a more detailed light on the interaction between the black slaves and wealthy farm owner, Ruth (Cassidy Janson). More specifically it charts Ruth and Dessa Rose’s turbulent and tempestuous relationship.
Often in musical theatre, a strong narrative is sacrificed in favour of catchy songs and flashy dance routines. Dessa Rose proudly bucks this trend, as not only do the musical numbers linger in the audience’s mind long after the final clap of the well-deserved standing ovation, these are complemented by a well-paced story that is littered with twists and gasp-worthy turns. This is all brought together largely thanks to a supremely talented cast, stellar musicians that are of course all brought together by Andrew Keates’ faultless direction.
For want of a better expression, Dessa Rose is far from a black and white portrayal of slavery and racial tension, in fact it ranks as one of the best pieces of theatre that I have had the pleasure of seeing this year. In a word is was phenomenal.
Dessa Rose is playing at Trafalgar Studios until 30 August. For tickets and more information please see the ATG website.