DESSA ROSE – Interview with Sydney Charles
Sydney Charles joins Bailiwick Chicago for the first time with her critically lauded performance in the title role of Dessa Rose. She shares some insight about her character, the current state of race relations in America, and the women in her life that inspire her:
Tell us about your character:
Dessa Rose, what can I say? In many ways, she is your average 16 year old. Full of dreams, loves hard, headstrong, determined, slighty defiant. However, what sets her apart from the teenagers of today, is that she doesn’t feel that she is automatically entitled to anything. She knows that whatever she gets, it is because she fought for it and didn’t rest until she got it and refused any substitute. She is very resilient and strong, but in that era, black women had no choice but to be that way. It was all about survival, and Dessa Rose is the quintessential example of what that is.
What have been some of your challenges (both personally and as an actor) to bringing your character to life?
It is difficult to stay in the mindset of being a slave. Living in the 21st century has somewhat made us forgetful, or rather, we take for granted some of the simple freedoms that we didn’t have in 1848. Something as simple as now being able to have hard soled shoes or being able to stop and take a break when you are tired of working…these are things slaves didn’t and couldn’t have. It makes you very grateful due what you have now.
Racial tension an inherent theme in the show. How do you think racial tension has changed since the 19th century (better and worse)?
This is a very loaded question. I don’t necessarily think racial tension has changed. However, I do believe that it is presented to us in a more deceitful way. Back then, racial tension was more blatant, and although wrong, you knew where you stood in the world. That white person doesn’t like me and I know because he said so, and he chases me, and calls me names to my face. Now, racism is wrapped in…Hmmmmm, how can I say this? Do you remember those chocolate candies that were wrapped in gold foil? The first time you saw one as a kid, you felt like you just won the lottery, only to discover you were bamboozled and this wasn’t what you signed up for or wanted…that’s today’s racism. It is cleverly disguised so that it is more palatable, but it isn’t something you to experience. Don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining…it is just pee at the end of the day.
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?
My grandmother, Mattie. She is the epitome of what a woman should be. My grandfather was murdered when he was 42. My grandmother raised 4 children, on her own, with no government assistance and with a 10th grade education. She has survived heart attacks, hip replacement, knee surgery, two strokes, and has beaten lung cancer twice. She is 82 years old. I mean, do I really have to say anything else?
What do you hope audiences will get out of the show?
I hope audiences walk away with a new awareness of what our history, what American history actually consists of and not what we are fed through basic courses in schools across the nation. Our lineage and our story is much broader and sad and beautiful and complex. I hope that this awareness causes people to stand up more for doing what is right on a basic level, and not doing what is popular or safe. Change didn’t occur in this country from following a trend, it happened because someone had a revelation, something stirred inside them, and it would be impossible to ignore that feeling and continue living in a world that wasn’t the way they knew it should be. That’s what I want to come from Dessa Rose… An awakening.
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 run through April 5 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.