The Cherokee Night

by Lynn Riggs

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Lynn Riggs’s play features a group of characters at different points in their lives. Set in rural Oklahoma over a twenty-five-year period from 1906 to 1931, the play reveals the challenges that Native American, African American, white, and multiracial peoples faced in that era. Rather than presenting a linear, chronologically organized plot, the playwright showcases critical events during which several characters interacted. For example, when the play begins in 1915, Bee Newcomb is a young woman. The last scene, however, is concerned with her parents’ interactions and takes place before she is born.

In the first scene, several important characters are introduced, and themes of Cherokee and Osage history are presented primarily through Jim Talbert. The biracial, white–Cherokee characters include Viney Jones, Bee Newcomb, and Art Osburn. During a summer night’s picnic, as they tell stories and joke around, they observe someone digging in what they think is an ancient gravesite. This turns into an unnerving encounter with Talbert, an old Cherokee man carrying a pickax. Although he has known them all their lives, he fails to recognize them and seems close to violence. In a rambling monologue about the visions that plague him, he reveals his guilt about having abandoned Native ways, which he is attempting to assuage by digging up and collecting arrowheads. In that exact place, ten years earlier, he had seen the tribes who had battled on that spot a century before.

Talbert: . . .They’d walked on me like I wasn’t there! Their feet in moccasins, feathers scrapin’ together, light on the quivers a-showin’ plain!

Art: (Excitedly) What was it? Whut’d you see?

Talbert: You know, don’t you? Cain’t you guess? (Deliberately, his teeth showing) Don’t you know what I seen—on this hill—this un? Cherokees! Painted for war! A-stealin’ up on the Osages asleep up there by their campfires! (Savagely, with frightful passion) Fall on ’em, cut their th’oats, bury yer tomahawks in their thick skulls, let yer muskets thunder! . . .

In the next scene, Bee Newcomb is shown being manipulated by the white sheriff. In exchange for twenty-five dollars, she agrees to trick a Native man into confessing to a crime the authorities are sure he committed. She will do so by being locked in a jail cell with him. It turns out this man is Art Osburn, one of the men on the picnic that night twelve years earlier. At first Art denies killing his wife, Clara, claiming that she fell out of a boat and drowned. As Bee goads him about having killed Clara deliberately for the older woman’s money, his demeanor changes and he begs her to keep his confidence. After he confesses to hating Clara and killing her with a hatchet, he becomes convinced that Clara is in the cell with them.

ART: . . . (He turns. The face of the dead woman grins down at him from the wall. His voice becomes a tense whisper.) It’s Clara! It’s her! (With fierce conviction.) Anh, it cain’t be! Iit’s a trick . . . . (He grabs the picture of the dead woman from the wall. He jumps on it, stomping it, his voice crazy and jubilant.) You’re dead, dead. I killed you!

In a later scene, Riggs presents white homesteaders who founded a church in the area. The congregants serve as a kind of chorus, their voices overlapping as they consider the difficulties of their new way of life.


Was a-skeerd to chop no furder ‘th old Butch runnin’ around in the brush liable to git fell on.

How’d you find bee’s honey, most a bucketful?

Frankie! Frankie! . . .

The wind was on the prairies. Clouds clumb nigh up here with lightnin’ showin’ forked in the folds! Wish’d it had stormed!

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