The Ecstasy of Rita Joe

The Ecstasy of Rita Joe Summary and Analysis of Act 1 (p. 37-50)


The Magistrate reads the Policeman’s report, in which two undercover policemen approached Rita and, through entrapment, arrested her for prostitution. Rita “is defiant,” and she responds “that’s a goddamned lie!” (40). She tells her side of the story: she was driving home when she saw the two policemen. She knew they were cops, and told them to go “fly a kite.” In response to this, the policemen began to push her around. They followed her until a third cop arrived, at which time she was arrested. Once in the back of their car, they “stuffed five dollar bills in my pocket” (41).

The Magistrate becomes irritated and tells Rita that she needs to find witnesses to substantiate her claims. The Policeman exits. The Magistrate once again asks Rita about the child he saw on the side of the road. Rita denies knowing the child. The Magistrate tells Rita that he has two sons, who are free to do whatever they wish, but if he had a girl, he would “be concerned about her choices…. These things don’t come as lightly for a girl” (42). He then tells Rita to stop hiding her child, as “someone else can be found to raise her if you can’t” (42). Rita tells him she would sooner kill her child than let it be taken away.

Rita wants to go home. She has another memory, and Jaimie, the Young Indian Men, Eileen, and an Old Woman enter the stage. They are welcoming Jaimie back home from the north. Eileen tells Rita that she broke up with her fiancé. All but the Young Indian Men leave, and Rita rushes to stand with them. She attempts to connect with the men, but they don’t remember her. The Three Murderers enter the stage and stand upstage.

One of the Murderers steps forward as a witness. He tells the Magistrate about how he gave Rita three dollars for sex, and slapped her around. As the witness gives his testimony, Rita continues to attempt to connect with the Young Indian Men. She is longing for a time long gone: “I wish… we could go back again an’ start livin’ from that day on…” (46). Jaimie reappears. Another one of the Murderers testifies as a witness. He tells the Magistrate that he paid Rita five dollars for sex and that she was scared. He also says that she told him she wished she was a school teacher, and everyone on stage laughs.

Jaimie and Rita lie down and embrace. They hold each other as Rita remembers a moment of intimacy in a cemetery. He leaves and the Policeman returns.

The Magistrate charges Rita Joe with stealing. He tells her it is the seventh charge against her in one year. Rita tells him she was hungry and had no money. They go over Rita’s personal history. The Policeman tells the Magistrate she was disruptive in school.

Rita Joe tells a story of when she was in school and a boy accused her of having her horse step on him on purpose. She calls this a lie. The Policeman and the Singer laugh, and the Magistrate asks her: “Why should they lie, and Rita Joe alone tell the truth?” (50). He tells Rita not to blame the police: “The obstacles to your life are here… in your thoughts… possibly even in your culture” (51). He tells Rita that she has to change herself and conform to the accepted white standards: “there is no peace in being extraordinary” (52).


When the Magistrate charges Rita for prostitution, it becomes clear that these are many different charges and court cases that are bleeding into each other. Time is fluid in the play, as Rita’s memories and the different court cases run back and forth across the stage. The only constant is Rita, who chases after Jaimie and her sister and runs away from the Magistrate and the Policeman. But the Magistrate and the Policeman are also a persistent presence. They define the order of proceedings, and in effect, the external world. As the Magistrate tells Rita: “Law is a procedure. The procedure must be respected. It took hundreds of years to develop this process of law” (49).

Rita’s depiction of what happened with the policemen is one of a heinous and illegal act, but the Magistrate does not take her at her word. Even though there probably weren’t witnesses to the occurrence, he demands that she bring in witnesses to testify on her behalf. It seems as though Rita has little hope for her prospects within this system, which is why she turns down the lawyer. When the Policeman exits the stage, he is smiling as he does so. This is probably because he knows he will not have to face consequences for his actions.

The Murderers are a menacing presence in the play. They are bold when standing together, and slightly less bold when testifying as individuals. They are shameless in describing how they solicited Rita for sex, and seem to take pleasure in the fact that she was under duress when it happened. They have no care for her wellbeing, nor does the Magistrate. When everyone on stage laughs at Rita’s desire to be a teacher, it signifies how they believe it absurd for her to have that dream. The role of the schoolteacher in society stands in harsh contrast with that of the sex worker, and this comparison works to further debase the character.

Rita’s intimacy with Jaimie provides an immediate contrast to the witnesses’ accounts. His memory is one that she calls upon at this moment. She hopes that he remembers the moment when he is loving others, remembers their connection to each other and to nature and to the dead. Rita cannot retain this moment with Jaimie, no matter how much she tries. She attempts to chase him off of the stage, but she cannot.

When the Magistrate denies that others have been lying about her, he asks Rita if she is “child enough to believe the civilization of which we are a part does not understand Rita Joe?” (50). While doing so, the Magistrate gestures out to the audience so as to include them in that civilization. This is an important question. Not only does it allow insight into the thought processes of the Magistrate, who seems to be taking all other stories but Rita’s as truth, but it also implicates society as a whole into this thinking. When her integrity is questioned, the protagonist is left completely vulnerable: she has no resources beyond her word. It is a question that sound ludicrous to the Magistrate’s ears, but within the context of the play, Ryga gives the audience a window onto Rita Joe's experiences and perspective, allowing us to answer, with Rita herself and in defiance of society, a resounding “yes.”