Dessa Rose, Trafalgar Studios – review

Published: Thursday, August 7, 2014 5:33 PM | Review by: Gillian Fisher / @gillfjourno | Afridiziak Star Rating:
Dessa Rose, Trafalgar Studios, Courtesy Scott Rylander Dessa Rose, Trafalgar Studios, Courtesy Scott Rylander

There is a great dynamic in the cast and excellent performances from all. In particular the suspicious and grudging respect Dessa and Ruth feel towards each other is fantastically depicted.


In the deep south of 1847, Dessa Rose otherwise known as ‘the Devil Woman’ sits shackled in an Alabama jail, awaiting her execution. On a small farm several hundred miles away, high society Ruth tends to her baby and awaits her husband’s return from a gambling trip. Through circumstance and necessity the polar opposed lives of these two women become entwined as Ruth’s unattended homestead becomes a haven for runaway slaves. Based upon the neo-slave narrative by Sherley Anne Williams, this production uses music to encapsulate the antebellum era and emphasise the gravity of the content. A skilled cast is led by Cynthia Erivo and Cassidy Janson in their individual quests for freedom.


Whilst there has been a wave of powerful slave narratives over the last five years, few have been from the female perspective. The play is framed as an intimate retelling of their stories by the two leads which is enhanced by the small theatre space. Unfortunately, at times poor staging makes it impossible to see the all the actors.


The infamous Devil Woman is a pregnant 16-year-old field hand. Cynthia Erivo plays Dessa as a stubborn and determined young woman; her low southern drawl and careful gestures smacking of cool reserve. Upon seeing her lover killed by their master, she does the unthinkable and defends herself. This act of defiance is the beginning of her tumultuous ordeal as we witness her horrific punishment and branding typical of the American slave era. Having a white woman as a main character gives a greater overview of the epoch as a whole which is far more complex than simply black versus white.


Dessa Rose, Trafalgar Studios, Courtesy Scott Rylander Dessa Rose, Trafalgar Studios, Courtesy Scott Rylander

An historical, shocking and affecting musical production.


Cassidy Janson is winsome and naïve as Ruth. Ever well intentioned, we see her character grow in confidence and empathy throughout the play. The two women’s voices complement each other beautifully; the low resonance of Erivo twinned with the higher pitch of Janson. The score and lyrics are composed by award winning song-writing team Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. Overall the music reflects the period and includes gospel, soul and blues rhythms. Whilst all are performed with vigour, some of the numbers seem arbitrary and add to the occasional lack of cohesion within the play. My two favourites were the love song In the Bend of my Arm, and jazz number The Scheme performed by Edward Baruwa as Nathan. An upbeat and cheeky character, Baruwa two-steps as he explains his plan to secure the groups’ freedom. There is a great dynamic in the cast and excellent performances from all. In particular the suspicious and grudging respect Dessa and Ruth feel towards each other is fantastically depicted.


Very much a play of two halves, Dessa Rose is a tale of brutality, escape, duplicity, and reinvention. It is also a glance into the life of a young woman born into slavery. This compelling production explores the way in which barriers of race and class can be broken down by universal experience and by love. An historical, shocking and affecting musical production.


Dessa Rose, Trafalgar Studios, Courtesy Scott Rylander Dessa Rose, Trafalgar Studios, Courtesy Scott Rylander

Info: Dessa Rose is at the Trafalgar Studios until August 30, 2014 / book tickets




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