The Ecstasy of Rita Joe

The Ecstasy of Rita Joe Summary and Analysis of Act 1 (p. 22-37)


Rita has a memory of her sister, Eileen Joe. She tells the magistrate that her sister is a dressmaker, but she struggles to make a living off of that in the city. The Magistrate realizes where he knows Rita’s face from: he had been driving out in the country one day a few years prior when he saw a child on the side of the road. She was barefoot and all alone, even though she was no older than four years old. He asks Rita if this was her child, and, “with disinterest,” Rita responds “if you think so, mister…” (26).

Eileen returns, and Rita acts out a memory of picking berries with her as a child. In her memory, a storm comes. Eileen is frightened and Rita comforts her as a mother would. They remember that Eileen had asked Rita if the storm got them lost in the bush if Rita would be her mother then. Eileen departs but Rita keeps talking to her, remembering how they made it home that day.

The Priest, Teacher, and a Young Indian Man cross the stage behind Rita. The Priest approaches Rita and asks her how her life is. She is noncommittal in her response. The Magistrate asks Rita again if she would like a lawyer. Rita once again has a memory of Jaimie Paul.

In her memory, Jaimie tells Rita about his new governmental job. They are laughing again. Rita tells Jaimie that when she sleeps well, she dreams of picking berries in the sun with her sister. There is the sound of an airplane overhead. Jaimie and Rita look up. The Teacher, Rita’s father David, an Old Woman, four Young Indian Men and Eileen all enter the stage. They all stand to look up at the plane.

Jaimie tells Rita that her mother told him that she might never see him again when she was taken to the hospital by plane. He joins the group on the upper level of the stage.

Mr. Homer enters. He comes to stand beside Rita Joe and addresses the audience directly. He speaks of the work he does on behalf of “our Indians here in the city at the Centre… Bring them in from the cold an’ give them food….” (35). He references the death of Rita’s mother, taking credit for flying her to the hospital when she got sick.

All the actors but the four Young Indian Men leave the stage. They stay behind and mime drinking. Mr. Homer continues to talk about what the center does to help Indigenous people, including providing for women and children when “a man drinks it up an’ leaves his wife an’ kids,” and providing donated clothing in piles in the basement, because “Indian people… ‘specially the women… get more of a kick diggin’ through stuff that’s piled up like that…” (36). Rita moves to stand with the Young Indian Men. They dance. Mr. Homer leaves and Jaimie returns.

Jaimie Paul is “drunk, disheveled” (37). The six individuals on stage dance and laugh. Jaimie confronts a member of the audience and asks them: “You know me?... You think I’m a dirty Indian, eh?” (37). He puts his hands on his head and staggers away. He is tired. The men exit. Rita goes to follow but is blocked by the Singer.

A Policeman enters and calls her name repeatedly. The Teacher enters and does the same. The Teacher exits. The Magistrate and the Policeman call Rita’s name at the same time. The Magistrate asks Rita for the last time if she wants a lawyer. Rita says no. The Magistrate tells Rita she is being charged for prostitution. He asks her why she did not “return to your people as you said you would?” (39).


Eileen’s story once again calls upon the theme of tension between rural and urban areas. At the time that this play was written, Indigenous peoples in Canada struggled to access the opportunities present in major cities, as they were left out of the workforce. Eileen’s story is an example of this, as Rita tells the Magistrate that her sister moved to the city for two weeks before having to return to the reservation, because in two weeks, “not one white woman came to her to leave an order or old clothes for her to fix” (25).

When the Magistrate suggests that he had seen Rita’s child, he also suggests that there are places she could have taken the child where she could be raised by “institutions and people with more money than you” (27). Rita strongly objects to this, telling the Magistrate that nobody would get her child. This is what sparks her memory of her sister. Rita has a very maternal love for her sister, and she is proud of Eileen’s accomplishments. Her memories of her sister make her sad. Childhood is a tender thing in this moment, something to be protected from large and scary forces like the storm.

As Rita lives out her memories, the magistrate is a constant presence on the stage. Even in the scenes where he has no speaking role, there is a faint light on him in his position of authority. He weaves in and out of the memory scenes, responding to certain questions of Rita’s and asking her repeatedly if she would like a lawyer. This taints the magic of Rita’s memories, which are marred by the constant intrusion of a dismal reality.

Mr. Homer is described in the stage direction as “a white citizen who has the hurried but fulfilled appearance of the socially responsible man” (34). He is a domineering presence on the stage. After he begins to speak, Rita “lowers her head and looks away from him,” and he responds to this by moving to her and placing “his hand on her shoulders possessively” (35). He prods Rita to say thank you for how he helped with her mother’s death, and Rita plays along, but she still does not look at him. He is insidious, and racism spills out of him even as he aligns himself with the people he purports to help.

The Magistrate and the Policeman forcibly remove Rita from her memories. The Policeman does so by physically grabbing Rita and shaking her, “to snap her out of her reverie” (39). The Magistrate sits still through this, “erect, with authority” (39). As the magistrate charges Rita, the light in the backstage dies, and Rita stands before the two men, “contained in a pool of light before them” (39). All of these stage directions work to establish a clear hierarchical power dynamic in this scene. This dynamic is reinforced through the end of Act 1.