The play opens on a circular ramp “beginning at floor level stage left and continuing downward below floor level at stage front, then rising and sweeping along stage back at two-foot elevation to disappear in the wings of stage left” (15). This ramp “dominates” the stage (15). Within the ramp lie the Magistrate’s chair and desk. Next to the desk, “turned away from the focus of the play,” sits the Singer (15). It is established that she will act as a foil, or “alter ego,” for Rita Joe throughout the play.
Backstage, there is a “mountain cyclorama,” a panoramic image that wraps around the interior of the ramp. In front of it is a dark curtain, “to suggest gloom and confusion,” and an image of the city. Before the play starts, the entire cast enters from backstage, the doors of the theater, and the wings from the stage. At the moment that they are all on stage together they pause, and the lights dim.
The Magistrate enters and the clerk announces that court is in session. The cast chants Rita Joe’s name as she is brought onstage by the policeman. The magistrate discusses the nature of the law as the cast leaves the stage. He states that freedom is a function of the law.
Rita, “with humor, almost a sad sigh,” tells of a time she was tricked into arrest by a group of men (17). She follows this up with: “It wasn’t true what they said, but nobody’d believe me…” (17). The Magistrate speaks of the law and the importance of a strong economy. Rita realizes that the magistrate “does not relate to her,” so she turns to the audience to tell of the job she once had, working in a tire store (19).
Jaimie Paul enters. He is “jubilant,” and Rita runs to him. This is a memory. He tells Rita about the things he saw in the city. Rita accompanies his story with what she has heard of the city, that in the morning “clouds are red over the city,” and “if you’re real happy… the clouds make you forget you’re not home” (20). Jaimie tells Rita that he was singing, but that the people in the city were watching him like he was “a harbor seal,” so he stopped.
Rita tells Jaimie that she remembers colors, but has already forgotten faces. The Magistrate asks for her attention, and she tells Jaimie that they are going to put her in jail again. He does not follow her, and as he leaves the stage and ends the memory he tells Rita of the room he is renting, and how he is going to buy a car so that he can take her everywhere. He leaves, and the court is back in session.
The Magistrate charges Rita with vagrancy. Rita tells him of her previous night in jail. He asks if she has appeared before him in the last year, to which Rita responds that she doesn’t know. This makes the Magistrate and the policeman laugh. The Magistrate tells Rita she will have to find witnesses for herself, and that she has eight hours to do so.
The ramp on the stage is a striking image with which to open the play. Visually, the ramp is a very commanding object that takes up most of the stage. Thematically, the ramp suggests the possibility of ascent and descent within a certain structure. Its dominating presence gives a sense of inescapability as actors are forced to walk on and around the structure.
The Singer is another interesting figure at the opening of the play. Ryga writes in the stage notes that she must sit turned away from the focus of the stage, and “her songs and accompaniment appear almost accidental” (15). This character will serve as a foil for Rita Joe. Her attitude must be that of “a white liberal folklorist with a limited concern and understanding of an ethnic dilemma which she touches in the course of her research and work in compiling and writing folk songs” (15). This highly specific stage direction not only effectively sets a tone for the play and establishes some kind of antagonism, but also opens the play with a larger critique of the white-dominated art world of that time.
The cyclorama also offers a particular meaning at the beginning of this play. The mountains in the back, superimposed with a dark, confusing curtain and a cityscape, give a sort of setting for the play. It also sets up a conflict between the rural and the urban, the nature that surrounds us and the city that blocks our access to it. When it is lowered into place, Ryga intends for it to “creates a sense of compression of stage into the auditorium” (16).
At the beginning of the play, the entire cast is on the stage, making up the individuals who are at Rita Joe’s court hearing. The first questions the magistrate asks about Rita Joe are about her but not addressed to her. He asks the policeman bringing her in who she is and if she speaks English. Already we see that Rita Joe is being dehumanized by this process. Throughout this scene with the Magistrate, the Magistrate talks at Rita Joe about the law without taking into account her words and responses. As the mouthpiece of the judicial system, the Magistrate speaks of the law, the economy, and the importance of “Gainful employment. Obedience to the law…” (18).
The tension between rural and urban spaces is a central theme of the play. This theme is introduced by Rita’s memory of Jaimie. He tells Rita that he has seen things in the city that he had never seen before—a man standing on top of a bridge, people on the beach, and kids feeding seagulls. Rita supplements Jaimie’s story with what she knows about the city. This practice makes them laugh, even as their stories take on darker tones. Jaimie hints at encountering aggression, and Rita discusses how she has forgotten people’s faces, but can remember colors: “A sick man talkin’ is brown like an overcoat with pockets torn an’ string showin’… A sad woman is a room with the curtains shut…” (21).
As Rita appears before the magistrate, she repeatedly attempts to connect to him on a human level. She freely offers him information about her life, at times speaking “naively” (24). When silence falls over the two of them, she works to fill it. According to the stage direction, Rita “craves communion with people, with the Magistrate” (24).