On the Record with Caroline Jackson-Smith

Danny Evans, Arts Editor

Over Winter Term, Caroline Jackson-Smith, professor of Africana Studies and Theater, directed Dessa Rose, a musical about slavery in the antebellum South. Dessa Rose follows a long line of politically and socially conscious plays that Jackson-Smith has put on at and outside of Oberlin. The Review spoke with her about what to expect from the upcoming production.

Why did you choose to put on Dessa Rose? Is there a particular reason why this year felt like the “right” year for it?

Well, that’s kind of ironic, because we actually picked it several years ago. The way we have to pick shows in the Theater department, we have to look over a few-year time period. … Also, because this was a musical, we wanted to make sure that we did it at a time when there would be good musical talent who wanted to be in the musical. But, why I picked it: I saw the original 10 years ago, and before that, the novel had been one of my favorite novels. I had met Sherley Anne Williams in the ’80s before she wrote the novel, and she’s always been a favorite writer of mine. [Dessa Rose in particular] was very significant to me because it was really a new way of telling a story about slavery … because it focused on young women who had created a rebellion, [and] because it also looked at the partnership between a young Black woman and a young white woman. Also, in the novel, there’s so much about love — sexy love, as a matter of fact! [Laughs.] The way that slavery’s been stereotyped has often involved making African Americans look like victims and … misunderstandings about how much rebellion activity took place. All of those things made me love the novel. So, when I saw the adaptation 10 years ago at Lincoln Center, I was really surprised that someone would’ve chosen it. And the music is beautiful. The adapters, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, are pretty famous musical theater writers; they wrote Once on This Island [and] Ragtime. I was really moved by the way they handled [Dessa Rose]. The music has always stayed with me, the story has always stayed with me, and I’m just so excited that we finally got to do it. It’s one of those projects that’s been on my mind for a long time.

With Dessa Rose being a musical based on a novel, did you find that the two sources came together to influence you, or was one more influential than the other? How did that situation affect your process?

Well, for one thing, I did insist that all the actors read the novel. It’s a rare opportunity to have a piece for stage that has other source material that gives you more information. … I would say that both the novel and the theater adaptation were hugely impactful for me. What’s interesting is that, in the adaptation, there are some critical changes that were made to … cut [the story] down to size. [In the adaptation,] there’s more of an emphasis on the partnership between the two women; that’s a little bit more weighty in the stage adaptation than in the novel. … The other thing that’s really interesting is that Stephen Flaherty, who composed the music, did a lot of research into traditional Black music. I appreciated that they were thoughtful in the adaptation to things that were important to me, like retaining the sense of what Africa meant to people, retaining the spirit of the unique African-American culture that was created. The intention was [to create] traditional musical theater in a traditional format. So it’s a really interesting hybrid form. I think that [the adapters] succeeded in many ways for people that were outside that tradition. I think that they impacted me in different ways. When I saw it at Lincoln, the lead, who played Dessa Rose, was a woman named LaChanze, who also won a Tony Award for The Color Purple, and she’s just a powerhouse performer. I just cry when I see this. I’ve joked, “I can’t cry through rehearsal all the time.” [Laughs.]

I guess this is the right musical for you to be putting on, then!

Going back to your first question, I guess I believe there’s a certain kind of universal “rightness,” a divine order, and I think that the students involved in this [and I] … kept asking ourselves all through the process, “What does this mean that we’re doing this now in this political climate?” In one of the pieces Lily White, who’s the dramaturg, wrote, she incorporated the term “Black lives matter” because, when you see the story of slavery, you understand the roots of all of the kinds of inequality and violence that continue to happen — the forms of racist stratifications. I’ve been really wanting people to see it. I think it really will frame the experience for people who don’t know this history in a very specific way. I also think that this is a story of hope. It’s a story of allyship, which is a big question on campus. … It’s very difficult, but [it] produces changes if people hang in there with it. Such an important subject right now: forms of rebellion. I mean, the first half of this play has people killing other people, in a somewhat convincing way. Some of it is about how violence against people does spark violent revolution, but it isn’t the only thing it sparks. The second half is really about the group of African Americans who are escaping slavery with this young woman, kind of working together to all get out of the South. I like that part of it, too. That was a unique angle.

What are the challenges associated with putting a play together during Winter Term? Are there any advantages?

It’s a total luxury. People aren’t divided in their attentions. What I was able to do was to establish a professional theater schedule. A professional theater schedule is 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day for six days a week, and that’s what we did. It’s a real treat around here to focus on one thing for that long. And I must say that the ensemble who performed became so close. The performers commented on several things. One: it is a mixed-race ensemble, that’s the other reason I liked it for this environment — to give a lot of different actors opportunities. One of the actors actually said at some point that they were never taught this material in high school, and that their real education was beginning by doing this. They kept commenting on the fact that, since other people weren’t here, they felt freer to build their ensemble. So, yeah, it’s actually a treat to do it [over Winter Term]. Usually you’re doing evenings and everyone’s tired and they have conflicts.

With Oberlin being such a musical school, how does that influence the process of putting on a musical? Do you feel like there’s a heavy emphasis on the music when you’re doing a musical?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the fact that we’re Oberlin College and Conservatory. … We advertise to the world that this is one of the most unique things about us, and yet sometimes, we exist in two different worlds. But, this time, I was really pleased, because I was able to talk with a lot of Voice teachers and get their support. … We have … wonderful cast [members] who are trained in every kind of way people can be trained on this campus. Africana Studies has an arts program that some people come from; there are straight Theater majors, there are several double-degree Theater and Conservatory Voice majors. We have a lot of the Jazz Studies majors playing in the show. I think it’s a project that highlights everything we want Oberlin to be: the seriousness of the content, the fact that it’s also beautiful and entertaining at the same time, the fact that it’s a training opportunity for people to get a higher level of skill, also that we can take advantage of all these different talents and be in one place with them. I think it’s the kind of thing that in some ways only can happen at Oberlin, [especially] at the professional level we’re doing it. It’s way beyond traditional student theater. 

Speaking of putting productions on at Oberlin, do you feel like there’s a relationship between Dessa Rose and other plays or musicals you’ve put on? 

Well, I’ve been directing for close to 30 years, and I’ve been here 26, 27 years. Because my job is a product of the Black Arts Movement that was here, it’s always been my challenge to find plays which originate in some way from a Black point of view but also enrich the community in lots of different ways and can include people. So, I have done a lot of different plays that are either set in slavery or are about the long shadow of slavery on our country. I do love musicals. The last big musical I did was The Wiz, which was very fun. … What I’ve also done in a lot of my shows is create original music, even [if the show is] not a musical, per se. So music is crucial to me in performances. In the last few years, I’ve done some unusual things, [like] piece[s] that [have involved] a lot of different kinds of students telling their own stories. … I think pieces that are deeply involved in the social fabric of our lives are really important to me.

How do you feel about the music in Dessa Rose?

This is a virtual sing-through. This is a play with very little dialogue … which is what I love about it. It’s very challenging. It’s important to have singers who can deliver that, and we certainly do. I think that is the thing that I liked about it the most — that the theatrical play exists within the music almost entirely. That’s very exciting to me. I’ve been saying that everyone on this project is doing something they’ve never done before; I’m doing a musical on a scale I haven’t done before. We’re micing everybody, which we’ve never done before, and it’s fantastic. The musical director is operating behind the set, which she’s never done before. A lot of the musicians have never done musicals before. The students are getting a chance to work at a level that they don’t always get to work on. The design work is beautiful. I feel very lucky.

Sounds like a really exciting performance.

It really is. I don’t always pump up my work this much, but I honestly feel that people will regret it if they miss this show.