Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Cultural Appropriation for Mainstream Consumption: The Musical Adaptation of Dessa Rose

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Cultural Appropriation for Mainstream Consumption: The Musical Adaptation of Dessa Rose

Article excerpt

Analyzing Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's 2005 musical adaptation of Sherley Anne Williams's Dessa Rose, this essay suggests that mainstream consumption of black cultural expression is substituted for meaningful social change, highlighting the musical's investment in a colour-blind ideology that reproduces the very erasures against which Williams wrote.

In Neo-slave Narratives: The Social Logic of a Literary Form, Ashraf Rushdy maps how the genre of the neo-slave narrative, as well as the depiction of slavery within such novels, has been shaped by contemporary academic, political, and cultural discourses. The "social logic" to which he refers includes the "[neo-slave narrative's] origins in the social, intellectual, and racial formations of the sixties, its cultural politics as these texts intervene in debates over the significance of race, and its literary politics as these texts make statements on engagements between texts and between mainstream and minority traditions" (3). Further, he posits that authors Ishmael Reed, Sherley Anne Williams, and Charles Johnson utilized the neo-slave narrative for two key reasons: "To salvage the literary form of the slave narrative from what was generally thought of as its appropriation [by William Styron] in the sixties" (6) and "to return to the literary form in which African American subjects had first expressed their political subjectivity in order to mark the moment of a newly emergent black political subject" (7). Rushdy thus connects race, representation, and power to genre and subjectivity, showing how the novels first critique the co-option of African American narratives and then establish a counter-discourse of black subjectivity through strategic engagement with the slave narrative form.

Rushdy's articulation of the comprehensive "social logic" of neo-slave narratives complements Kristel Thornell's assertion that an adaptation "manifests complexities and uncertainties that resonate both with the literary text from which it draws inspiration and with the society that produces it." Williams's novel, Dessa Rose, is an adaptation of both history and genre in the way it uses the neo-slave narrative form to creatively bring together two historical figures--a black enslaved woman hanged for participating in a revolt and a white woman charged with harbouring fugitive slaves--in order to explore the possibilities had they met (Williams 5). Comparing Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's 2005 musical adaptation of Dessa Rose to Williams's original novel uncovers both shifts and continuities of the "social logic" effected in the almost twenty years separating the two texts.

In adapting Williams's text for the stage, Ahrens and Flaherty attempt to maintain certain structural similarities. The novel comprises Williams's "Author's Note," a prologue, the three main sections of the novel--"The Darky," "The Wench," and "The Negress"--and an epilogue. While the libretto consists of only two acts (the first comprises thirty-five scenes/songs and the second comprises thirty-three), Scenes 1 and 2 of Act 1 function as a prologue and Scenes 34 and 35 of Act 2 replicate much of the original epilogue. In published form, the libretto is preceded by Ira Weitzman's overview of the musical's genesis, as well as Lynn Ahrens's synopsis of the libretto. (1)

In both the novel and the libretto, Dessa Rose follows a fugitive slave, Dessa; her husband, Kaine; fellow runaways, Harker, Nathan, and Cully; Ruth, a white woman on whose farm the fugitives take refuge; and Adam Nehemiah (Nemi), (2) a white writer who wants to use Dessa's story for his book on thwarting slave rebellions. But while Williams struggled "for several years" to publish her short story and later, novel, (Williams, "History" 257), Ahrens and Flaherty's musical debuted during a boom in historical novels about slavery, with a public more willing to consider the antebellum past. Ironically, despite the shift in public acceptance of the general topic, the musical reproduces the transgressions that Williams first challenged. …

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