By Ignoring Parallels with Present, Audiences Undercut Black Retellings of History

Editorial Board

Fresh from the success of a powerful Winter Term production that filled Hall Auditorium last weekend, members of the cast of Dessa Rose reunited Wednesday for one final performance, this time before a markedly different audience: minimum-security inmates at Grafton Correctional Institution. “I cannot tell you how much [more] this one shortened sing thru version of the show meant to me than any of our performances combined,” wrote College sophomore and lead actress Tiffany Ames in a Facebook post. “More than any show I’ve ever done.” That the musical would take on new meaning in the context of prison should be no surprise. For some of those who took seats in Hall last weekend, however, the story’s contemporary political relevance appeared to go virtually unnoticed.

Dessa Rose tells the story of a young, pregnant, enslaved woman — Dessa, played by Ames — fleeing a death sentence and fighting to escape the antebellum South. She is aided by fellow fugitive slaves and an unlikely ally: Ruth, a white woman abandoned by her plantation-owning husband. It draws heavily on themes of captivity, incarceration and the brutal dehumanization of African Americans, and it poignantly conveys Dessa’s struggle to accept the company of a friend she sees first as an oppressor.

But the production was more than a beautiful performance. That diretor Caroline Jackson Smith selected the show years ago did not preclude the 2015 production from referring to the “Black Lives Matter” movement that has taken root in recent months. “This show is a love song to past and present student activists who practice and provoke deep democracy,” she wrote in her director’s note in the show’s program. “In Dessa Rose are the roots of our national shame and the legacies of the continual fight for liberation based in African experience.”

The show’s relevance in Grafton prison, furthermore, is no coincidence. In her 2010 book, The New Jim Crow, prominent legal scholar Michelle Alexander lays out the empirical argument that American mass incarceration has become a covert form of social control over African Americans, one which replaced overt Jim Crow segregation before it and slavery before that. In Grafton, skewed incarceration rates reflect national patterns: Roughly half of the prison’s 2,000 inmates are Black, compared with approximately nine percent of the general population in Lorain County.

“These men, these amazing Black men are my brothers, my father, my cousins, my uncles, my friends,” Ames wrote of the inmates. “Dessa may be a play, but these men are living it every day of their lives in modern day chains that make up the prison industrial complex. So many of my lines barely made it out of my mouth because I was speaking their life stories.”

Dessa Rose is indeed a work of historical fiction, and it is possible to praise and appreciate it as such. However, to do so without also acknowledging the parallels that tie it inextricably to the present is to erase a vital component of the show’s value in the present moment. It is to erase the “continual fight for liberation” of which Jackson Smith speaks. It is to erase the need for a Black History Month every year and a Black Lives Matter movement every day.

Yet this erasure is pervasive. In Hollywood, Selma saw similar treatment: Despite clear signals — including the soundtrack’s closing number in which rapper Common explicitly connects Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic march in Selma, AL, with the recent protests in Ferguson, MO, and director Ava DuVernay’s frequent allusions in media interviews to the systemic racism in modern-day America — white audiences have only intermittently seen the timeliness of the film. Much of the mainstream critique surrounding Selma has focused heavily, often excessively so, on alleged historical inaccuracies. Few in the media spotlight, meanwhile, have praised DuVernay for pointedly reclaiming King’s legacy, providing a sorely needed counter-narrative to the watered-down image of King that prevails in most historical accounts. DuVernay’s snub at the Oscars, while unsurprising given the Academy’s legacy of favoring white actors and directors, reflects this.

When Black artists make efforts to reclaim their stories, it is not enough for audiences to passively express their appreciation by focusing solely on artistic or historical merit. Instead, it’s vital that audiences engage with the art, think critically about its message and actively support the artists in their efforts.