The Ecstasy of Rita Joe

The Ecstasy of Rita Joe Summary and Analysis of Act 1 (p. 50-78)


Rita is transported to another memory. Jaimie and the four Young Indian Men and Mr. Homer enter. Mr. Homer is distributing soup to them. He tells the audience: “The do-gooders make something special of the Indian… There’s nothing special here…” (52). Jaimie becomes agitated and approaches Mr. Homer. He tells Mr. Homer that he spits in his soup. He then tells Mr. Homer that he saw him down by Rainbow Creek. Mr. Homer denies ever having been. They exit.

Rita returns to the Magistrate and the Singer. Rita, happy and acting drunk, tells the Magistrate a story. She tells of staring up at the stars and seeing her grandfather, and calling the chief and telling him she saw God in the sky. Suddenly, Rita becomes aware of her captivity. She asks him what her sentence will be; she is afraid. The Magistrate tells her he has no alternative in sentencing her. She begs him to let her go and tells him that she will go home and find a job. He tells her that she “might be an incurable carrier,” that she might be the kind of person that “cannot come into contact with others without infecting them” (58). After this condemnation, he exits. Rita falls to the floor.

The light comes up in the backstage and shows Eileen and an Old Woman, miming washing clothes, as well as Jaimie and a Policeman. The Policeman is scolding Jaimie for being “drunk, abusive, and noisy” (59). Jaimie shows the Policeman a coin trick. The Old Woman and Eileen discuss Eileen’s father, David, who has been sick. The Old Woman wonders if Rita will be able to say goodbye to him. Rita, “calling from her world to the world of her strongest fears,” denies that David is dying. They can’t hear her. Rita didn’t know her father was sick. All but Rita and Eileen exit.

The Teacher enters, and she scolds Rita for making the class wait. She and Eileen sit with the other children. The Teacher asks Rita what a melting pot is. She does not know. The Teacher has Rita recite a verse from the Bible. The Teacher tells Rita that she will never make bronze, that is, she will never be a successful addition to the melting pot: “Coming from nowhere and going no place! Who am I to change that?” (66). The Teacher and the other schoolchildren exit. Rita is alone onstage for the first time.

Rita reveals that she has spent seven and a half hours looking for a character witness, but she has not been able to find one. David and Jaimie enter. They are discussing business, and Jaimie tells David that it is time to stop relying on handouts. David tells Jaimie that it is not good to be as angry as he is. Jaimie exits and leaves Rita with her father.

Rita’s father faces away from her and tells her that she left him and that he is dead. They discuss their dreams; they dream about each other. They sit together as Rita asks for a story from her childhood. The Magistrate enters to ask Rita when the last time she had an appointment at a dentist’s office was. Rita covers her ears, reluctant to give up her time with her father. He continues to ask her questions. The Teacher emerges, and refuses to testify to Rita’s good character. Mr. Homer enters and tells the Magistrate that she assaulted him one night.

Jaimie enters and Rita pleads for a good word from him. He tells her he was fired and asks: “What the hell’s the use of living?” (75). The School Board Clerk enters to offer testimony and tells the Magistrate that he sent Rita a letter recommending she continue her schooling through correspondence courses, but that Rita never replied. Rita told him that her boss used to burn their mail, but the Clerk replies that she never replied to the letter. The testimonies continue to come. They become a “nightmare babble” (76).

The Murderers appear and circle Rita while listing out her charges. Rita pleads with them all: “You got rules here that was made before I was born” (77). The Murderers come closer as the Magistrate asks her whether she has been checked for diseases by a doctor recently. Rita breaks away from the murderers and tells the Magistrate to put her in jail. She is sentenced to thirty days.


The Magistrate treats Rita with a strange mix of fondness and derision. He becomes amused by her stories but still accuses her of lies. When Rita becomes afraid, he becomes annoyed “at himself, at her” (58). The Magistrate tells Rita that he is stuck—he has no reason to lower her sentence, “nothing here but a record of your convictions” (58). This upsets him because some part of him believes in her. He asks if he should “Violate the law myself because I feel that somehow… I’ve known and felt…” (58).

The Magistrate decides that no, he can’t and shouldn’t. He asks Rita if she has ever wondered if she is just sick, and has a sickness that can spread to others. This characterizes Rita as something against which society must be protected, as if her race and her class were contagious diseases. This metaphor helps us see how government officials used policy in order to exclude Indigenous peoples from society.

Rita is in pain as she remembers a scene she never got to witness, and realizes that no one ever told her that her father was sick. The stage directions have Rita “calling over the distance of her soul,” as she confronts not only her loss but also the fact that she never went home in order to say goodbye to her father. The interaction between Jaimie and the policeman during this scene physically separates Rita from her family.

Like the Magistrate, the Teacher denies Rita’s ability to contribute to society. She chooses the analogy of the melting pot as a way to tell Rita that she will “never make bronze” (66). She condemns Rita incredibly quickly—for being a nuisance at first, but then at the end for having what she perceived to be a lesser moral fiber. Rita was condemned in the beginning for having a bad character, as she is now by the Magistrate. She cannot escape this condemnation.

The testimonies from the Teacher, Mr. Homer, and the School Board Clerk are all from individuals who should have had Rita’s best interests at heart. But following an example set by the teacher, all three turned their backs on Rita Joe in the past, and now in the future spoke up as to help condemn her further. It is senselessly unfair, and Rita knows this, as indicated when she asks the School Board Clerk: “One letter… one letter for a lifetime?” (76). The Policeman, a Male Witness, and the Priest all offer their own condemnations.