Last Updated on August 29, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 422
Rita Joe is a young Native American woman and a hopeless romantic. She leaves her reservation to begin a new life in the city. However, after Rita Joe loses her job, she is arrested several times for vagrancy and solicitation. As an indigenous woman, she is at a disadvantage in the legal system, and she is sent to prison. After she is released, Rita's father begs her to return to the reservation. She refuses and stays in the city, though she is living on the street. After a life of hunger and exhaustion, Rita is raped and murdered.
Jaimie Paul is Rita's childhood friend from the reservation. He urges the chief to adopt the ways of the white men because life on the reservation is challenging and stagnant. Jaimie, too, moves to the city, where he finds a well-paying job and lives a successful life. However, he loses his job and begins to drink. He finds himself homeless, but he refuses to accept charity. After Jaimie goes to prison for assault, he is released, and he and Rita reconnect. When he and Rita are attacked, Jaimie is thrown in front of a train.
David Joe is Rita's father and the chief of their tribe. He is very worried about the future of his people and fears for the young people who leave the reservation for life in the city.
Throughout the play, a singer performs onstage, singing about the complex issues raised raised in the story.
The magistrate who presides over Rita Joe's trial wishes to be lenient with her, but he is obligated to send her to prison.
Mr. Homer is a white man who runs a charitable organization for Native Americans; however, his efforts are used to hide his true feelings. He is the man whom Jaimie attacks.
Father Andrew is a priest who visits Rita in prison. In his attempts to comfort her, Rita becomes angry and disillusioned about God.
Eileen Joe is Rita's sister and appears to Rita in her dreams. She reminds Rita of the simple life on the reservation.
Alongside Eileen in Rita's dreams is an old Native American woman who tells Rita that her father is ill.
Miss Donohue is Rita's former teacher who testifies against her during her trial.
The Three Witnesses / Murderers
The Three Witnesses lurk in the background throughout the play and come forward to serve as witnesses against Rita during her trial. Eventually, they turn into the Three Murderers who kill Rita and Jaimie.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 747
Rita Joe, a simple, romantic young American Indian woman. She moves to the city to escape the stagnation of life on her reservation, but things go wrong: She loses her job and is arrested repeatedly for a variety of offenses, such as vagrancy and prostitution. At the mercy both of a legal system she does not understand and of people who view her as inhuman, Rita ends up serving time in prison. Her dreams of a good life conflict with memories of a life that was simpler but one that was dominated by white people’s ideas about religion and education. Figures from Rita’s past appear and reappear, serving to highlight the conflicts between Native American concerns and the ways of the white culture. Despite pleas from her father to come home, Rita stays in the city. Chronically hungry, tired, and ill from living on the streets, she is finally raped and murdered.
Jaimie Paul, an idealistic, impetuous young American Indian. He argues with the chief of his tribe that life on the land holds no future and that Indians must adopt white people’s ways if they are to get ahead. Like his childhood friend Rita, Jaimie opts for the comforts and fast pace of life in the city. Once there, he gets a job and rejoices in the good life it promises. Jaimie does not succeed in bridging the gap between the two cultures either; he loses his job and starts to drink. He balks at accepting charity; his dignity compels him to refuse free food and clothing despite the fact that he is starving and penniless. Frustrated and angry, he assaults Mr. Homer and ends up doing a short prison term. Following his release from jail, he and Rita go out on a date to celebrate. He is beaten and thrown in front of a train while attempting to defend her from the Murderers.
David Joe, an Indian chief, Rita’s father. He is a dignified, sorrowful man who despairs about the future of his people on the reservation as well as about the fate of the young people who flock to the city. He speaks thoughtfully, using figurative language that articulates the dilemmas facing Indians.
Singer, a fixture onstage throughout the play. She is an earnest sort whose music is supposed to complement the action, although it is evident that she does not entirely comprehend the issues about which she sings. Her lyrics frequently provide ironic commentary on the drama.
Magistrate, the official who presides over Rita’s trial. He is determined to be stern but fair in his judgment of Rita, although her lack of understanding of her predicament exasperates him. He would like to be kind to Rita because she reminds him of a poignant experience he once had in “Indian country,” but his sense of duty gets the better of him, and he sentences her to jail.
Mr. Homer, a socially responsible white man. Although he runs a social service agency for American Indians, his charitable acts thinly disguise his real attitude of fear and condescension toward them.
Father Andrew, the church representative. He has known Rita since she was a child and visits her in prison. His clichéd words provide her with little comfort, and he leaves her angry and resentful of his unyielding ideas about God.
Eileen Joe, Rita’s younger sister. She appears mostly in Rita’s dreams. She brings back memories of simpler times, when she and Rita went berry picking together or when they comforted each other in the face of a violent storm. Eileen also tries to live in the city but eventually returns to the reservation.
Old Indian Woman
Old Indian Woman, a character who represents the ways of the past. She appears with Eileen in Rita’s dreams to convey information to Rita about her sickly father.
Miss Donohue, a teacher from Rita’s past who serves as a witness against her during the trial. She is a peevish spinster who becomes exasperated when Rita cannot seem to keep her mind on Wordsworth.
Three Witnesses, also called Three Murderers, interchangeable characters who hover on the fringe of the action throughout the play. Although they sometimes act as witnesses against Rita in her trial, they usually lurk menacingly in the background, stepping forward only at the end to murder both Jaimie and Rita.