DESSA ROSE – Interview with Brigitte Ditmars
Jeff Award winning theatre artist Brigitte Ditmars joins Bailiwick Chicago for the first time in our upcoming production of Dessa Rose. She shares some insight towards her character, the current state of race relations in America, and the women in her life that inspire her:
Tell us about your character:
Ruth’s Mother is very much the classic matriarch of an Antebellum plantation system. As a white woman of status in the south, she is consumed by preserving the status quo and bringing her daughter up to be a proper young woman among the Charleston elite. She doesn’t question why things are the way they are and when things don’t go according to her plan or that of the system, she is very quick to remove herself from association, even if that means turning her back on her daughter.
What have been some of your challenges (both personally and as an actor) to bringing your character to life?
Anytime I play a maternal character, it’s my natural tendency to approach it from a place of unconditional love and acceptance. But in this particular society, a mother’s duty is to raise her children to preserve the rules and customs and traditions. That means not having an active role in your own child’s development. Their children are reared by another woman because the white women have other obligations. It’s odd to operate on such a level of distance from my daughter. As an actor, you are taught not to judge your character, only justify their actions. I really have to fight against the creation of a normal mother/daughter relationship and treat her more as a teacher/pupil. To add to the pressure, all relationships and character development is done through quick songs or 1-2 lines of dialogue, not long scenes.
Racial tension an inherent theme in the show. How do you think racial tension has changed since the 19th century (better and worse)?
While many strides have been made to ease racial tension, I think today’s problem is that tension for all races lies beneath the surface, where as in the 19th and even the earlier part of the 20th century, you saw it out in the open. That suppression, keeping silent about issues, sweeping it under the rug or letting it pass as “that’s just how it is” can only hurt in the long run. Eventually, if left to fester, problems will erupt. Fear to talk about hard subjects manifests into further fear and misconceptions, which ultimately will get to a breaking point.
Another inherent theme in the show is the celebration of women and our lineage. Can you share a story about a woman either in your family or in your life that has inspired you?
I remember at very young age, probably 6 or 7, my mom told me her wish for all of her daughters was to be self-sufficient and independent. If we complained about homework, she used to tell us it was necessary to be educated so we could always fend for ourselves. Her biggest fear was that we wouldn’t know how to be self-sufficient or worse, that our health, happiness and well-being depended on anyone else but ourselves. I know she learned that through the teachings, successes and mistakes of her mother who learned it from hers. Having done my family tree, there are amazing stories of women who were left, due to death, severe injury or abandonment of husbands, and in turn, had to be the sole providers for their families. Some way, they did it. I always know that its in my blood to be resourceful because of the women from my family.
What do you hope audiences will get out of the show?
I hope they begin talking…about gender issues…race issues…class issues. I hope they start a dialogue with themselves and others about fear, about learned behaviors that they have adopted or rejected and answer truthfully why they believe what they do. Then I hope they begin taking action to behave from an authentic place and not from a place of “that’s how it has always been.”
Dessa Rose is adapted for the stage by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty from the novel of the same name by Shirley Ann Williams. Based on both fact and fiction, the musical weaves together the stories of two real women, one white and one black, who struggled for different kinds of freedom in an era defined by men.
Performances begin March 6 at the Victory Gardens Theatre – Richard Christensen Space. For more info, click here. For tickets, click here. For a behind the scenes look, follow #DessaRose on all social media channels.