Dessa Rose
An abandoned mother and a runaway slave come together to survive in the antebellum South.
Show Essentials
+ Ensemble

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").



Cast Size: Flexible Cast Size
Cast Type: Ethnic Roles
Dance Requirements: None

Character Breakdown

Dessa Rose

The Black protagonist, who ages from 16 to 80 over the course of the story. Tough, wary, intelligent and essentially vulnerable, she risks all for her child. As “Old Dessa,” she is a narrator, remembering her youth not only with anger but with wisdom and humor.

(Vocally, the performer cast as Dessa must have a strong D5 belt.)

Gender: female
Age: 35 to 45
Vocal range top: E5
Vocal range bottom: G3
Ruth Sutton

The white protagonist, who ages from 20 to 80 over the course of the show. She is an upper-middle class woman of the pre-Civil War South, abandoned by her husband and trying to cope with a farm, an infant and her loneliness. She battles her upbringing and prejudices to do the right thing

Gender: female
Age: 30 to 45
Vocal range top: D5
Vocal range bottom: Ab3

A white journalist who is caught between the conventions of his world and his dangerous attraction to Dessa.

Gender: male
Age: 30 to 40
Vocal range top: F4
Vocal range bottom: Bb2

He is a runaway slave, a Black man with a kind heart, great sense of humor, capable and clever in the ways of survival. He will become Ruth’s lover, as they embark together on a dangerous journey.

Gender: male
Age: 30 to 40
Vocal range top: F#4
Vocal range bottom: A2

White male. Ruth’s husband, charming and attractive at first, but later revealed as a thoughtless reprobate who abandons her. This character also plays various other southern men—an auctioneer, a sheriff, a brutal slave trader, etc. Must be capable of creating specific characters.

Gender: male
Age: 30 to 40
Vocal range top: A4
Vocal range bottom: A2
Master Steele/Mr. Oscar

White male character actor, capable of playing several specific roles: a cruel slave owner; as well as a funny, lecherous drunk. (Also doubles other character roles, including the decent Sheriff Pine.)

Gender: male
Age: 40 to 55
Vocal range top: B3
Vocal range bottom: C3

A Black slave and good friend to Nathan. He is attractive, warm and humorous. He is a character with leading man qualities who ends up winning the heart of Dessa. This actor doubles as JOSEPH.

Gender: male
Age: 30 to 45
Vocal range top: Bb4
Vocal range bottom: D3

An older Black character actor. She is tough, superstitious, deeply wary of whites and protective of Dessa. She has borne and lost eleven children to the ravages of slavery. Actor doubles as TINA, ADA, and AUNTIE CHLOE.

Gender: female
Age: 40 to 55
Vocal range top: C5
Vocal range bottom: F#3

An enslaved Black woman who raised and influenced Ruth, instilling in her young charge a compassion for others. This actor doubles as GEMINA (who helps Dessa escape) and JANET, another escaped slave.

Gender: female
Age: 40 to 50
Vocal range top: F#5
Vocal range bottom: G3

The love of young Dessa's life and the father of her child. He is sexy, brash, masculine, and joyous. This young Black actor also doubles as ERIC and PHILIP.

Gender: male
Age: 25 to 40
Vocal range top: G4
Vocal range bottom: A2
Ruth's Mother

A mature, steely white woman. She is schooled in the ways of charm and knows how to manage slaves with grace and severity. Actor doubles as SUSANNAH (a flirtatious Southern belle.)

Gender: female
Age: 35 to 45
Vocal range top: G5
Vocal range bottom: B3
Parishioners; Auctioneers; Field Hands
Full Song List
Dessa Rose: We Are Descended
Dessa Rose: Comin' Down the Quarters
Dessa Rose: Ol' Banjar
Dessa Rose: Something of My Own
Dessa Rose: Ink
Dessa Rose: The Gold Band
Dessa Rose: Little Star
Dessa Rose: The Gold Band (Conclusion)
Dessa Rose: Ladies
Dessa Rose: Bertie's Waltz
Dessa Rose: At the Glen
Dessa Rose: Capture the Girl
Dessa Rose: Fly Away
Dessa Rose: Fly Away (Conclusion)/How Long Will it Be?
Dessa Rose: Terrible
Dessa Rose: Their Eyes are Clear, Blue Like Sky
Dessa Rose: Twelve Children
Dessa Rose: Noah's Dove
Dessa Rose: Fly Away (Reprise)
Dessa Rose: The Scheme
Dessa Rose: In the Bend of My Arm
Dessa Rose: Better if I Died
Dessa Rose: Ten Petticoats
Dessa Rose: Just Over the Line
Dessa Rose: A Pleasure
Dessa Rose: White Milk and Red Blood
Dessa Rose: Epilogue: We Are Descended

Show History


The idea for the musical adaptation of Dessa Rose came in 1986, when lyricist/librettist, Lynn Ahrens, first read Sherley Anne Williams's acclaimed novel of two women in the pre-Civil War South. Her writing partner, composer, Stephen Flaherty, was not initially convinced.

In the summer of 2002, Ahrens took the book with her on vacation, where, just as an experiment, she wrote the first fifty pages of the libretto on her own. As soon as Flaherty received the libretto, he agreed to musicalize it. In a 2003 interview, Flaherty reflected on the benefits of altering their writing process for this particular piece, "It was an interesting way to write. I think it actually allowed Lynn to explore her vision of the piece first, because she obviously had a very, very strong vision of what the story was and how to tell it, and I was intrigued by the piece, but I didn't have the same vision about it that she did."


A workshop of Dessa Rose was held at Lincoln Center Theater in June of 2003, featuring Donna Murphy and LaChanze. The musical then premiered Off-Broadway at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. The show officially opened on March 21, 2005, and closed on May 29, 2005. It was honored with four Drama Desk nominations and praised for being a significantly serious show with a substantive message.

Critical Reaction

"With Dessa Rose, Flaherty and Ahrens grab us from the very beginning; their music and lyrics are absolutely spellbinding."
– Steven Suskin, Playbill Online

"There are many rewards in the story of these proud, independent-minded women, played with grit and conviction by LaChanze and York."
– David Rooney, Variety

Drama Desk Award

2005 - Outstanding Actress in a Musical, Nominee (Rachel York)
2005 - Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical, Nominee (Norm Lewis)
2005 - Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical, Nominee (Kecia Lewis)
2005 - Outstanding Music, Nominee (Stephen Flaherty)
2005 - Outstanding Actress in a Musical, Nominee (LaChanze)

Outer Critics Circle Award

2005 - Best Off-Broadway Musical, Nominee (Dessa Rose)

AUDELCO Awards for Excellence in Black Theater

2005 - Musical Production of the Year, Winner (Dessa Rose)
2005 - Best Actor in a Musical, Winner (Norm Lewis)



Based on the Novel by Sherley Anne Williams


You must give the authors/creators billing credits, as specified in the Production Contract, in a conspicuous manner on the first page of credits in all programs and on houseboards, displays and in all other advertising announcements of any kind.
Percentages listed indicate required type size in relation to title size.
Book and Lyrics by
Music by
Based on the Novel by Sherley Anne Williams
The names of the Bookwriter/Lyricist and Composer shall be equal in size, type, coloring boldness and prominence. No billing shall appear in type larger or more prominent than the billing to the Authors except for the title of the Play. The billing to Ms.Williams shall appear in type 50% of the size of that used for the Authors' credit.
In addition, you agree to include the following on the main credit page in all programs:
"Originally Produced By Lincoln Center Theater,
New York City, 2005"
The videotaping or other video or audio recording of this production is strictly prohibited

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