Full Synopsis

Full Synopsis

Act One

Dessa Rose is told as an oral history by Ruth, the abandoned wife of a farm owner, and Dessa Rose, a young slave. The two women "hand down the story," stepping from their older selves into their younger selves, to tell and relive the adventure that they went through together ("We Are Descended"). Their changes in age can be made instantly – without different costumes, that is – simply by small physical and vocal adjustments.

As a young, pregnant slave ("Something of My Own"), Dessa Rose commits an act of violence, attacking her master when he murders the father of her child. She is beaten and badly scarred before being sold ("The Gold Band").

On the road, shackled to other slaves, she takes part in a slave uprising; she is caught and sentenced to be hung, but not before her baby is born, since the child will be sold as property.

Meanwhile, Ruth is living on an isolated farm, trying to care for her infant daughter alone ("Ladies"). Her husband, Bertie, has deserted her, and she must rely on the escaped slaves who use her farm as a refuge ("At the Glen").

A journalist named Nehemiah becomes obsessed with Dessa Rose and tries to transcribe her story before she is executed ("Capture the Girl"). She tricks him into enabling her escape ("Fly Away"). With the help of her friends, Nathan and Harker, she makes her way to Ruth's farm, already in labor ("Terrible"). Ruth helps her to give birth and allows her to stay, along with Harker and Nathan. Nehemiah vows to find her and bring her to justice. Dessa Rose, meanwhile, tells her newborn daughter about the family's history, promising that she will give her daughter a name when they go North ("Twelve Children").

Act Two

As time passes, unlikely alliances are formed at the farm, particularly between Ruth and Nathan ("Noah's Dove"). Dessa remains mistrustful and jealous of their friendship.

Nathan suggests a dangerous scheme that may enable them to make money and escape their circumstances once and for all ("The Scheme"). Despite their mistrust for, and fear of, one another, Ruth and Dessa agree to his plan. They pack a wagon and strike off for distant towns ("Just over the Line"), where Ruth poses as the "mistress" of the slaves and sells them off at auction. The slaves then escape, make their way back to her and they all move on. They all plan to share the money.

Meanwhile, Nehemiah searches for Dessa, posts ads for her capture and grows more and more obsessed.

In the course of their travels and adventures, Ruth and Dessa come to rely on one another to overcome peril and violence and, little by little, develop a grudging mutual respect.

When Nehemiah finally captures Dessa and tries to expose her as the escaped convict that she is, Ruth steps in to convince the Sherriff that Nehemiah is mad and that Dessa belongs to her. An elderly black woman is called in to examine Dessa for the scars that identify her, and the woman lies to protect Dessa.

As Ruth and Dessa finish their extraordinary tale, we understand that Dessa has managed to raise her daughter "in freedom and truth." Ruth, Dessa and their deep and lasting bond makes them part of a "long, strong line of women" ("We Are Descended – Epilogue").