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'Digging Up Dessa' teaches historic relevance, self-discovery

Metro Theatre Company will premiere its own adaptation of playwright Laura Schellhardt’s work “Digging Up Dessa” at The Grandel
Credit: St. Louis American
Actresses Rae Davis and Lizi Watt receive direction from Metro Theatre Company Artistic Director Julia Flood for the play “Digging Up Dessa,” which premieres Oct. 17 at The Grandel Theatre.

ST. LOUIS — Pre-teen and teenage years can be challenging times in a youth’s life as their bodies adjust to changes from puberty. Sometimes they move to different schools, have to make new friends, come into their own as far as finding themselves, and deal with whatever else life throws their way.

On top of facing those day-to-day struggles, 12-year-old Dessa battles with post-trauma and grief from losing her father in a car accident. To help her cope with his death, she becomes curious about science and professes that she will someday work in that profession. 

Reality sets in for her when she realizes there aren’t many women represented in that field. On her visit to the museum she only sees men on the walls and in her history books there’s only one woman mentioned—that woman is the late 19th century paleontologist Mary Anning.

After learning about Anning, Dessa goes on a quest to have her legacy memorialized and recognized more among her male counterparts.

While Dessa is the only person who can visibly see Anning, the icon takes Dessa under her wing and guides her through her journey of self-discovery.

Metro Theatre Company will premiere its own adaptation of playwright Laura Schellhardt’s work “Digging Up Dessa” at The Grandel from Oct. 17 through Nov. 7.

In the world premiere of Dessa at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the lead actress for Dessa was played by Latina actress Alina Collins Maldonado. For MTC’s production, the lead actress is Rae Davis, a Black woman.

Julia Flood, MTC artistic director and Digging Up Dessa director felt it was imperative to have the play fit the demographic representative of St. Louis.

“I wanted the audience and young people we serve to see themselves on that stage,” Flood said.

“I also think for me a play is much more interesting if there are a lot of different kinds of people on the stage, so that I’m seeing a rich community of people that looks like the community I live in. That makes the play even more resonant for not just me but for a young girl who’s 12 years old who’s coming to see this play. I want her to be able to see herself.”

Davis instinctively thought about how she could make her character relatable to especially Black youth that will come see the show. She sees the importance of wearing out her natural hair and using African American Vernacular English to cater to that audience while she delivers the storytelling.

“I want them to see themselves represented in a field where it's not that we don’t exist, it's just we’re not shown,” she said.

“Dessa wants to be a scientist and I’m hoping that this show will open their eyes to a lot of different opportunities and possibilities. I hope it expands their view of what is available to them and what they’re capable of achieving despite all of the adversities and societal disadvantages we have to deal with.”

Davis’ character Dessa’s connection with Anning, played by Lizi Watt, may be liberating, but it's her relationships with her mother Esther (played by her older sister Alicia Revé Like) and her newfound friend Nilo, played by John Katz, that make the story even more worthwhile.

Davis’ sister Like is two and a half years older. She recalls her being very protective of her when they were younger. She thinks it’ll be interesting for the audience to see their relationship transform from little sister/big sister in real life to a mother daughter dynamic on stage.

“You usually see a basic relationship between mother and daughter especially during puberty years; where it's like my mother doesn’t understand me, she doesn’t know what I’m going through and she’s never lived this life,” Davis said. “Not acknowledging the similarities a daughter has to their mother and how as time moves on you see those realizations.”

Dessa’s friendship to Nilo is like no other. Both come from two completely different backgrounds. One of the most obvious differences between the two is that Nilo is a white male and privilege is innately in him. While their walks of life are on polar opposites of the spectrum, their bond still shows the importance of educating, being open to learning, and being open to correction.

“I think Dessa and Nilo’s relationship is interesting because they’re both experiencing growth, changes in life and not feeling understood, but they’re living in two different neighborhoods and two different lives,” Davis said.

“The basic human experience is the base of what they build their budding friendship on. I think it’ll be nice for people to be able to see that reflected and understand that differences don’t have to be things that keep us at a distance. Those are things that can be celebrated and be used to our best advantage to figure out how we can exist in this world together and assist each other in this world together.”

Flood said the play is entertaining and strongly encourages everyone to come out and see it.

“There’s a lot of laughter in this play,” she said. “It's important to know that there’s human as well as heart and it's a really smart play too. I couldn’t be more excited to be back on stage at The Grandel.”

MTC opens its 2021-2022 season with “Digging Up Dessa Oct. 17- Nov. 7 with socially distant seating at The Grandel theatre.

Virtual streaming is available Oct. 21- Nov. 7 at metroplays.org

 In accordance with Missouri ArtSafe Certified, COVID-19 protocol is in place for all guests. For more detailed information on Metro Theater Company's COVID health policies, please visit metroplays.org/covid

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