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Dessa Rose

Cover to original cast recording

A musical in 2 acts. Book and Lyrics by: Lynn Ahrens
Music by: Stephen Flaherty
the Novel by Sherley Anne Williams

Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre - 21st March, - 29 May, 2005 (80 perfs)

Rights Holder: USA - M.T.I. / U.K. Josef Weinberger Ltd


Told as an oral history by two women, Ruth and Dessa Rose, this powerful tale of an unlikely friendship takes place in 1847, fourteen years before the outbreak of the American Civil War. Variety called it “An absorbing story of two strong women in the pre-civil war south. Played with grit and conviction… beautiful songs, strongly etched characters and soaring emotions—in the story of these proud independent women.” And the London Financial Times said: “The work of Ahrens and Flaherty …achieves overwhelming power. The friendship of Dessa Rose and Ruth may not be joined sexually but their friendship is the most affecting love story currently on a New York stage." Based on both fact and fiction, the musical weaves together the stories of two real women who struggled for different kinds of freedom in an era defined by men. Ruth Sutton is a white woman abandoned by her husband and living on an isolated farm. Dessa Rose is an escaped slave on the run from a bloody slave rebellion, with a newborn infant to protect, who seeks refuge on Ruth’s farm. Hidden in this Alabama backwater, the two women’s uneasy alliance ultimately transcends any racial barriers as they find the strength to confront the world on their own terms. Their dangerous journey to freedom and self-realization makes for a musical that is by turns comic, tragic, uplifting and inspired.



Tthe cast assembles to tell the story of Dessa Rose and Ruth, two women from whom each of them may well be descended. (The company will play all the parts in the story.)

Old Dessa and Old Ruth are revealed and begin to "hand down" their extraordinary tale in the form of an oral history. As our narrators, they transform from old women into their young selves and back again throughout, living their tale in the present and also telling it from the vantage point of old age.

Now, they conjure up a scene from the past, as Kaine comes down to the slave quarters looking for his girl, the youthful Dessa Rose. Old Dessa transforms into young Dessa Rose and greets him joyously. He shows her his handmade "banjar", and tells her what this primitive instrument means to him. Dessa Rose is pregnant, and her mother Rose does not want her to have the baby. Dessa Rose responds passionately that this baby is is wanted. So strong is her plea that Kaine, Rose and Dessa Rose come together and embrace.

The scene segues away from their embrace to a cellar jail, and we realise that we have been watching a flashback. Dessa Rose is, in fact, imprisoned, sentenced to death for taking part in a slave rebellion. A journalist, Adam Nehemiah, has come to take her story for a book he is writing. He tells her that once she gives birth, she will be hanged and her child will be sold, but if she agrees to talk to him.she can at least leave her child her true story. At last Dessa agrees, and begins to tell her tale to Nehemiah, and we return to the moment of the embrace.

Master Robert Steele enters and interrupts them, telling them all to get back to work. In anger, he breaks Kaine's banjar in half. Kaine erupts. attacking him. and Steele hits Kaine in the head with a shovel. killing him.

Dessa Rose leaps on Steele, trying to kill him in return. She is pulled away and beaten, and then sold to the brutal Trader Wilson, who chains her on a "coffle" - a chain gang of slaves being marched south where they will be sold.

On the coffle, Dessa Rose is befriended by two slaves, Nathan and Harker. who admire her fierce courage, and try to smooth her way. In the middle of the night, as they are resting, Trader Wilson drags Dessa Rose away and attempts to rape her. Dessa Rose manages to knock him out with a rock and steals the key. She releases her fellow slaves, and they escape, killing their white captors, but because she is pregnant she can't keep up with them.

Through this dramatic action sequence we pass back to the cell where Dessa Rose, finishes her bloody story, telling Nehemiah that she killed the white men for the same reason the master killed Kaine — "because I can." There is a blackout.

Abruptly, lights come up on the world of privileged white society. Ruth, now seen as a young Charleston belle, is being fitted for a dress by her Mother and her black mammy, Dorcas. As they fuss, they tell her how ladies are expected to behave, and we see that each of these women exerts a very different influence on Ruth.

Against her mother's wishes, Ruth falls in love with Berne Sutton and is swept from courtship to marriage to the birth of a daughter to Bertie's desertion. Ruth is now alone on Bertie's isolated farm. Her only companion, Dorcas, has died suddenly and the only people around are runaway slaves who find shelter there. Ruth wonders what will become of her.

Meanwhile, through interviewing her, Nehemiah grows increasingly obsessed with Dessa Rose and begins to see her as a human being. Dessa Rose will give birth any day, and they both know this means her hanging is imminent. Ruth is having a hard time coping with the farm, her infant daughter and her loneliness. The escaped Nathan and Harker arrive at her door, startling her. They tell her they are "just passing through" and she sets them to work.

Nehemiah has allowed Dessa Rose to go outdoors for some air, and although she is still in chains, they spend some time together. Nehemiah reads a letter from his fiancée Susannah. Nehemiah is torn between two very different women, his fiancee and Dessa Rose.

When Nehemiah returns Dessa Rose to her cell, she behaves seductively in an effort to get him to unlock her leg irons, but he backs away and leaves. A slave named Gemina enters on a pretext, and secretly gives Dessa Rose a file to use later.

Realising that her escape is being planned, Dessa Rose appeals to slaves outside the cell to tell her how long it will be. Encoding their message in a hymn-like song. Nathan and others tell her "it won't be long." and Dessa Rose begins to file off her leg irons.

That night, Nehemiah finds himself inexorably drawn back to Dessa Rose. He kneels to unlock her leg irons, not realising that she is already free. She hits him in the head with a bucket, knocking him out, and escapes, aided by Nathan.

In a rage of betrayal, Nehemiah interviews the slaves who may have seen Dessa Rose escape, but they all plead ignorance while laughing at him behind his back. He vows to find her and see that she hangs.

Dessa Rose, already in labour, is carried to Ruth's isolated farm. Not knowing what else to do, Ruth helps deliver the baby. There is a blackout.

Lights come up on Ruth nursing Dessa Rose's infant daughter. Dessa Rose wakes up and is horrified by this, even though she is in no shape to nurse the baby herself. Ruth is insulted and gives the baby back to Dessa Rose, but tells the help that she will need to continue nursing this child because Dessa Rose is too weak and ill to do so.

Dessa falls asleep and dreams of her mother, Rose, who warns her not to trust white people.

It is necessary for Ruth to nurse Dessa Rose's baby now, as well as her own. As she does so, she talks out loud, wondering what to name her. Dessa refuses to let her baby be named by a white person, and confronts Ruth. upsetting her so much that she runs out. Dessa Rose tells her child the history of her own family, and promises that she will not be named until they are free.


Out in the fields of Ruth's farm, field hands observe the growing relationship between Ruth and Nathan, as, little by little, they become friends. Old Dessa remembers this period of time and the jealousy she felt.
The slaves on Ruth's place do chores, singing jubilantly together that they will soonbe free. Dessa Rose is finally strong enough to get out of bed and she comes to the Quarters where she is welcomed by the group and reconnects with Nathan and Harker.

Ruth interrupts, looking for Nathan, but leaves in embarrassment, not wanting to talk to him in front of everyone.

The slaves make fun of Ruth, and urge Nathan to tell Dessa Rose about the plan for escaping to freedom. In this plan, Nathan explains, they must find a white person who will pretend to sell them off at auction. Then, they will escape and rejoin the group, a plan to be repeated in towns across the south until they earn enough money to buy their way to a free black settlement in the West.

Later, Nathan is confronted by Ruth. She has been eavesdropping outside, and has overheard the hands mocking her and also their plans for escape. Nathan asks her to join them in the scheme, but she is deeply hurt and refuses. even though she says that he is now "her only friend."

Alone, Dessa Rose remembers her love for Kaine and suddenly they are together again in her memory. Lights come up on Ruth and Nathan as they are drawn to one another and finally kiss. Elsewhere, Nehemiah yearns for Dessa Rose.

The next morning, Dessa Rose is appalled to find Nathan and Ruth in bed together. Ruth sings her inner turmoil at being caught like this. Ruth decides she has nothing left to lose and agrees to embark on the scheme.

Lights come up on Ruth's Mother in a flashback from the past. as she instructs Ruth in the proper way for a lady to travel. An angry Dorcas hauls heavy trunks and packs as Ruth's Mother blithely gives instructions.

Now we are back in the present. The group sets out on the road, but Ruth and Dessa Rose aren't speaking to one another. Nathan tries to make peace. They are embarking on a dangerous adventure in which Ruth will pretend to sell them off one by one. There's no room for any quarrels now. They are going into unknown slave territory and unknown emotional territory as well.

Over the course of a few days. they travel from auction to auction and meet up later, camping out in the woods. Ruth is frightened for Nathan, but he says "It's not about us now." Harker tries to convince Dessa Rose not to be so angry at Ruth but to trust her instead. Meanwhile, Nehemiah is tracking Dessa Rose, following her trail and posting rewards for her capture.

Ruth and Dessa Rose manage to wangle the offer of shelter for a night in the house of a wealthy
landowner. Ruth, back in polite society, begins to drink too much and flirt with her host Mr. Oscar, whose wife is away. Afraid that Ruth will reveal the scheme, Dessa Rose tries to keep Ruth in line, but can't. After dinner. Dessa Rose convinces Ruth to go up to their room, where they have an argument, and then settle down to sleep. In the middle of the night, Mr. Oscar tiptoes into the room and tries to rape Ruth. Dessa helps Ruth, and together they beat him off with pillows. It's almost funny, but in the end, it is a frightening ordeal for Ruth and a realisation for Dessa Rose that all women are vulnerable, no matter what their skin colour.

Frightened to be alone, Ruth pats the bed next to her, inviting Dessa Rose to sleep there that night. They cuddle their infants, and Ruth nurses one and then the other, a moment of communion for both women. In Ruth's mind, Dorcas appears, embodying motherhood and humanity.

Dessa Rose and Ruth's journey is coming to an end. The group has made a huge amount of money, which is all sewn into the seams of Dessa Rose's clothing. Soon they will all meet up, split the money and go their separate ways. Ruth and Dessa Rose check into a hotel and play their exaggerated "mistress and servant" roles, although when the door closes and they're alone, they giggle a little, having grown more comfortable with one another.

Ruth asks Dessa Rose how she would feel if Ruth "came West" with them. She doesn't want to live around slavery anymore.

Dessa Rose is surprised and confused, and runs from the room, not knowing how to respond to such a clear expression of friendship from a white person. All at once she is seized by Adam Nehemiah. She tries to run, they struggle, and Sheriff Hughes interrupts. Nehemiah accuses her of being a fugitive from justice, and Dessa Rose claims innocence, so the Sheriff takes them both back to the jailhouse fo questioning. He sends an old black woman name Auntie Chole to go and fetch Ruth. Dessa Rose: supposed owner.
Nehemiah argues that Dessa Rose has scars which will prove she is the fugitive described on the wanted posters, and lunges at her, trying to pull up her skirt and expose her scars. but Dessa Rose screams and escapes From him. Knowing Dessa Rose's guilt. Ruth convinces the Sheriff not to allow Nehemiah to look at her. But the Sheriff insists that the trustworthy Auntie Chole must examine Dessa Rose for scars to decide the matter one way or another.

In private. the stern Auntie Chole is about to lift Dessa Rose's skirt to inspect her, when Dessa Rose as much as admits her own guilt, saying that her baby will miss her. She tells Auntie Chole that she is only sixteen.

Without looking further. Auntie Chole exits the cell. She tells the Sheriff that she "aint seen nothin' on her," which is the "God's honour truth" since she hasn't looked.

Nehemiah has a breakdown, and begins to try and shove torn pages from his journal into the Sheriff's hand, writings which supposedly chronicle Dessa Rose's confessions from their interviews. But when the Sheriff looks at the pages, .they are "nothing but scribbles." Dessa Rose and Ruth leave, safe at last. In one final confrontation between the women. Ruth corrects Dessa Rose for calling her "Mistress." and Dessa Rose retorts that her real name is Dessa Rose, not "Odessa." it is a moment when two strong-headed women recognise each other as equals and friends.

At last, the company enters when we learn what became of everyone in the story, and how Dessa Rose finally made it West to freedom, and named her baby... Ruth.

The-company moves slowly offstage, a "long strong line," leading into history.
(Lynn Ahrens)


Parishioners, Field Hands

Musical Numbers


  1. WE ARE DESCENDED - Company
  2. COMIN' DOWN THE QUARTERS - Kaine, Field Hands and Dessa Rose
  3. OL' BANJAR - Kaine and Dessa Rose
  4. Scene: "Oh, slavery didn't do away..." - Old Ruth. Rose, Dessa Rose and Kaine
  5. SOMETHING OF MY OWN - Dessa Rose, Rose and Old Ruth
  6. Scene: "Watch your step, Mr. Nehemiah..." - Sheriff Hughes and Nehemiah
  7. INK - Nehemiah and Dessa Rose
  8. Scene: "HEY HEY...HEY HEY..." Steele, Rose. Kaine, Dessa Rose and Ensemble
  9. Scene: "You had no call to break that" Kane, Dessa Rose and Steele
  10. Scene: "Why you kill him?..." Steele, Dessa Rose and Rose
  11. THE GOLD BAND - Field Hands, Old Ruth, Rose, Harker, Mrs. Steele, Wilson, Nehemiah, Nathan, Harker, Field Hands and Coffle
  12. Scene: "See them stars..." - Nathan and Dessa Rose
  13. LITTLE STAR - Nathan, Harker and Dessa Rose
  14. Scene: "Hey, pretty girl..." - Wilson, Dessa Rose and Ensemble
  15. THE GOLD BAND (Conclusion) - Dessa Rose and Ensemble
  16. LADIES - Ruth's Mother and Dorcas
  17. BERTIE'S WALTZ - Bertie, Ruth, Old Dessa, Dorcas and Ruth's Mother
  18. AT THE GLEN - Ruth
  19. Scene: "Good afternoon, Odessa..." - Nehemiah and Dessa Rose
  20. Scene: "Observations on the famed devil Woman..." - Nehemiah
  21. CAPTURE THE GIRL - Nehemiah and Dessa Rose
  22. Scene: "Janet? Philip?..." - Ruth and Old Dessa
  23. Scene: "The people on her place..." - Old Dessa and Ruth
  24. Scene: "MISS. WE WAS ONLY" - Nathan, Ruth and Old Dessa
  25. FLY AWAY - Woman Parishioners, Men, Nehemiah, Dessa Rose, Old Ruth, and Susannah
  26. Scene: "That's the first time..." - Nehemiah and Dessa Rose
  27. Scene: "I'm sorry, Master..." - Gemina and Nehemiah
  28. FLY AWAY (Conclusion) / HOW LONG WILL IT BE? - Dessa Rose. Nathan, Gemina and Fieldhands
  29. Dessa Rose Escapes Nehemiah
  30. TERRIBLE - Nehemiah, Gemina. Tina, Joy, Joseph, Eric, Dessa Rose, Nathan, Harker,
    Philip and Old Ruth
  31. Scene: "Mmm...Hmm..." - Ruth anti Dessa Rose
  32. Scene: "Obstinate little fool..." - Ruth
  33. THEIR EYES ARE CLEAR. BLUE LIKE SKY - Rose, Ruth and Old Dessa
  34. Scene: "This baby don't need no name" - Dessa Rose and Ruth
  35. 'TWELVE CHILDREN - Dessa Rose


  1. NOAH'S DOVE - Field Hands, Nathan, Old Ruth, Dorcas, Ruth and Old Dessa
  2. Scene: "Through talking to Nathan..." - Old Dessa, Nathan, Ruth and Old Ruth
  3. Scene: "Why y'all call her Devil Woman?"..." - Ruth and Nathan
  4. Scene: "It was then I knew..." Old Ruth
  5. FLY AWAY (Reprise) - Janet, Annabel, Ilarker. Philip, Ada, Nathan and Ensemble
  6. Scene: "Ah, look here!..." - Nathan, Dessa Rose, Ada, Ruth, Janet, Annabel, Philip. Janet and Harker
  7. THE SCHEME - Nathan, Ilarker and Ensemble
  8. Scene: "Nathan thinks we might could..." - Harker, Annabel, Philip, Janet and Ada
  9. Scene: "Why Miz Ruth..." - Nathan and Ruth
  10. IN THE BEND OF MY ARM - Kaine, Dessa Rose, Ruth, Nathan and Nehemiah
  11. Scene: "Miz... Nathan! Nathan..." - Dessa Rose and Nathan
  12. BETTER IF I DIED - Dessa Rose, Nathan, Ruth and Company
  13. TEN PETTICOATS - Ruth's Mother and Dorcas
  14. Scene: "We organized to go..." - Harker, Joseph. Annabel. Ruth, Old Dessa and Old Ruth
  15. JUST OVER THE LINE - Dessa Rose, Ruth, Nathan, Old Ruth, Old Dessa, Auctioneer#1, Janet, Ada, Annabel. Harker. Philip, Auctioneer #2, Young Black Woman, Nehemiah and Susannah
  16. Scene: "Now things was going..." - Old Dessa, Ruth and Mr. Oscar
  17. A PLEASURE - Ruth, Mr. Oscar and Dessa Rose
  18. Scene: "That Mr. Oscar is..." Ruth and Dessa Rose
  19. Scene: "Not if your tongue gets loose..." - Dessa Rose. Ruth, Old Dessa and Mr. Oscar
  20. Scene: "I understood..." - Old Dessa
  21. WHITE MILK AND RED BLOOD - Old Ruth and Dorcas
  22. Scene: "They tell you about..." - Old Dessa
  23. Scene: "Anna. I swear you are as slow as molasses..." - Ruth and Dessa Rose
  24. Scene: "It was just like her..." - Old Dessa, Nehemiah and Sheriff Pine
  25. Scene: "Master, master..." - Dessa Rose, Nehemiah and Sheriff Pine
  26. Scene: "S'caped..." Nehemiah. Sheriff Pine and Ruth
  27. Scene: "I don't want your money, child..." - Auntie Chole and Dessa Rose
  28. Scene: "Sheriff, this gal ain't got..." - Auntie Chole. Nehemiah and Sheriff Pine
  29. Scene: "Sheriff, I got..." Nehemiah and Sheriff Pine
  30. Scene: "No. No! Look here..." - Nehemiah, Ruth and Sheriff Pine
  31. Scene: "Mistress. I..." - Dessa Rose, Ruth. Old Dessa and Old Ruth
  32. Epilogue: WE ARE DESCENDED - Annabel, Old Ruth, Old Dessa, and Company


Keyboards I, II; Mandolin; Bass; Percission; Reeds; Violin; Guitar; 'Cello