The STEM of the Problem: "Digging Up Dessa" follows a young female archeologist grappling with sexism in the science world


Dessa kneeing on the floor and speaking to someone outside the image frame.

Lauren Pride stars a budding archeologist who tries to expose sexism in the STEM world in Digging Up Dessa. Photo courtesy of EMU Department of Theatre.

Getting Dirty: Digging Up Dessa at EMU unearths the truths of both past and present

Digging Up Dessa gives women all the credit. 

Presented by the EMU Department of Theatre, the play seeks to restore credit to the female scientists whose discoveries were claimed by their male colleagues.

Dessa (Lauren Pride) is a young girl obsessed with fossils, archeology, and science. Her world has just been turned upside down due to the passing of her father. The entire family was involved in a freak car accident and he did not make it, leaving Dessa and her mom, Esther (Cassie Paige).

Ever since the accident, Dessa has seen visions of Mary Anning (Mollie Cardella), a scientist from the 1800s who made uncredited breakthroughs in archeology. Anning was a real person, and even though she discovered numerous creatures, including the first Ichthyosaur, she was not eligible to join the Geographical Society in London because she was a woman. No one else can hear or see Anning, and she helps Dessa deal with life as an aspiring female scientist.

Dessa is forced to do a school science fair project with her classmate Nilo (Dylan Benson), who comes from a wealthy family that has extremely high expectations for him, especially his dad. Dessa comes up with the idea that they try to find a fossil in the dig site by her apartment, then see who gets all the credit for the discovery. Her thesis is that everyone will assume Nilo found it because he is the guy, proving men are the first to be awarded in the scientific field. Sure enough, they make a discovery and, yes, Nilo is given all the credit. He eventually sets the record straight, but it proves Dessa’s point.

While I understand what Digging Up Dessa is trying to do, the script could use some refining. Playwright Laura Schellhardt tries to put a lot of life lessons in a 70-minute show, to the point where it’s a little chaotic to follow. We are introduced to Mary Anning as a character, but if it weren’t for Emily Levickas’ director’s note in the program, I don’t think I would have fully grasped who she was. There are small tidbits here and there in the play, but what was her biggest contribution to the science industry? It’s never plainly stated. I learned more about her from the program than from the show.

While Pride did a great job portraying the angry and fed-up Dessa, the character is written to be outraged the whole show. Levickas talked to Schellhardt about the show and the playwright was quoted saying, “My plays are often sparked by rage,” which is obvious because that’s the only emotion Dessa really shows. I wish we could have seen more of the curious Dessa, the passionate Dessa, the empathetic Dessa. We only see those sides of her for maybe 30 seconds each. The script was trying to prove too many points by having her be angry at the world with every single thing.

One thing the EMU Department of Theatre crew did really well with the show was the accessibility and sensory design. Sam Carter made Digging Up Dessa accessible for any audience member. When you are waiting in the lobby, there is a slideshow of the actors and voiceovers by each of them explaining their name, age, and physical looks. There are hearing aids and sensory glasses available as well. And toward the top of the set, the lines from the script are projected for everyone to read.

Accessible theater is still something the industry is struggling with, but EMU is definitely on the right track.

Marley Boone is a theatre professional that has been in the industry since 2015. While living in Philadelphia, she wrote theatre reviews for DC Metro Arts.

EMU Department of Theatre's “Digging Up Dessa” runs from May 12 -21 at the Sponberg Theatre, 1030 East Circle Drive, Ypsilanti. More information and tickets can be found here.