By Daniel Johanson
Just a stone’s throw from the Fullerton stop on the Red Line is the Chicago premiere of the musical “Dessa Rose.” Set in 1847 in the South, the work addresses the culture of oppression surrounding victims of slavery.
The musical chronicles the life of Odessa “Dessa” Rose. A pregnant slave, Dessa’s life is full of loss and tragedy.
“There are several obvious reasons that this play first set me ablaze personally and artistically,” said Lili-Anne Brown, artistic director of the musical. “It is a story of women, told by women. The title character is a black woman, like me. The two women at the heart of the story are strong, intelligent, independent and brave — qualities I aspire to every day.”
One of the primary focuses of the work is to use characters that are relatable. One of the many facets of a musical as an art form is how comfortable and accessible it is as a medium.
“America is at a tipping point in the national conversation about oppression of all kinds,” Brown said. “We may not be in the most useful, solution-oriented conversation yet, but the rising accessibility of unchecked and uncensored sources of information, communication and entertainment has certainly changed the tone. As more people who formerly felt voiceless find their voices, we are hearing increasingly diverse pleas for equity and justice, and, sometimes surprisingly, an equal backlash of exhaustion, resentment, guilt and fear.”
The Bailiwick Chicago Theatre, a company based out of Chicago, is putting on the production at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre, located on Lincoln Avenue and Fullerton. The accessible location allows the company to reach out to the wide variety of talent the city has to offer.
“I was working with [Brown] on a Roosevelt Showcase when she asked me if I was interested in understudying the show,” said Gilbert Thomas Domally, a student at the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. “I got permission from school and accepted the track. Then someone had to drop the show, and I was put into that role.”
As with any production, the directors have a clear goal set in mind. Part of their job is to make sure this goal is communicated through the performers to the audience.
“The director and the people telling that story have to decide what story they are trying to tell, and why is the piece relevant now,” Domally said. “Otherwise the piece will get glossed over as another slave piece. But our director and this cast have worked to make this story relevant and remind the audience that these characters are not that far from us.”
The real challenge as a performer in a work like this is to get into the mindset of these characters. It is up to some to play the very difficult part of slave owner, of oppressor.
“We can never truly imagine what it was like to be in this time period, whether as a slave, plantation owner or a journalist of the time,” Domally said. “When I think about the idea of a human being being thought of as a product and commodity, it is unimaginable, and for our fellow Caucasian cast members to have to think of these characters as so, I do not believe it was easy. But having said all that, it is important that we tell this story as truthful as possible and dig deep within ourselves so that this story can resonate with every audience member who encounters it.”
The show will continue its run until April 5. Information to purchase tickets can be found at bailiwickchicago.com.