DESSA ROSE – Interview with Jasondra Johnson
Jasondra Johnson (critically acclaimed for her performance as “Sofia” in Mercury Theatre’s The Color Purple) joins Bailiwick Chicago for the first time with our upcoming production 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:
I play the role of Dorcas and two other ensemble characters (i.e. Janet/Gemina). Dorcas is the slave woman or servant who practically raised Ruth. In the story, Ruth refers to Dorcas as “Mammy” as it was common for masters to name their slaves. Ruth grew up under the impression that was her name. Dorcas was in charge of taking care of Ruth as a child and even becomes her servant when she is an adult so Dorcas is Ruth’s foundation. Even when Ruth was a child, Dorcas always taught her lessons about life and the exploration of self and being comfortable in her own skin even when she did not meet her mother’s expectations. Dorcas is—essentially, the only black person that Ruth had ever established a true relationship with; the only one she had ever cared for. So, the way I see it…if not for Dorcas opening that door; the friendships that develop between Ruth and the other characters that are introduced would not have happened as smoothly. Ruth’s guard would have up the whole time and she would have fought it.
What have been some of your challenges (both personally and as an actor) to bringing your character to life?
I am a newcomer in this industry and this is only my fourth show ever so I still have many insecurities when I start exploring new roles. Dorcas is a strong, grounded woman which is a quality that I am comfortable portraying. However, I have to say it has been difficult finding ways to convey her story to the audience since it is not scripted. Dorcas is only ever mentioned in the script in relation to Ruth and there is no backstory given except that she raised Ruth. So, I have been brainstorming and building a life story for Dorcas so that whenever she is present onstage, it’s purposeful and each line reveals a piece of her character. Personally, I also enjoy that I get to show my voice a little more with this role than I have been able to in previous shows. Some of it has been challenging—just finding the right tones and mixes for certain songs, but I feel confident that I will have it soon. Since I’m not trained, I just have to believe whatever comes from the heart reaches the heart. If it’s sincere, it will be beautiful.
Racial tension an inherent theme in the show. How do you think racial tension has changed since the 19th century (better and worse)?
I’m so glad that I was not alive to experience life during those times, because I just don’t know if and how I would’ve survived. I have witnessed racism in my lifetime, but I know it’s only an ounce of what my ancestors endured. We’ve come a long way; and by “we” I’m referring to all races. I see children nowadays living in this world having no idea what we are talking about when they hear us discuss racism and prejudice which is a sign that times have changed for the better. Just being able to be part of a multiracial, multicultural cast is a sign! I’m grateful for the growth this country has made, but we still have work to do.
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 mother is the most amazing woman I know and I feel that is because of the woman who raised her; and the woman who raised her and so on. I come from a lineage of strength. My mommy is very stern and says it like she means it—much like how I imagine Dorcas. She is also the most giving woman I know and she touches so many people just in the way she will show you that motherly, tough love. My maternal grandmother birthed and raised sixteen children and still looked beautiful even in old age until she passed. She was one of my best friends as a child and she helped raise her grandchildren and never missed a beat. That’s strength and graceful beauty in my eyes so I try the best I can to always walk in their footsteps and hopefully pass the torch to my future daughter someday.
What do you hope audiences will get out of the show?
I believe audiences will leave the show feeling more responsible for one another. Hopefully they will realize (if they don’t already know) that regardless of color, culture, backgrounds—we are all human first; and therefore, are responsible for one another. That’s in regards to making sure each person in this world feels loved, respected, and safe. This show is so much about community and working together so I hope they go home with that in mind and then feel compelled to change while moving forward.
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.