In the preface to the play, Chief Dan George, of the Berrard Tribe of British Columbia, asserts that the message of the play is a true and important one, one that “all Canada should hear” (5). He presents the play as an opportunity for those outside of the community to better understand its hardships and writes that everyone in Canada needs to “listen with their hearts” to the message of the play (5). He was “amazed” at the reaction the play received when it first came out, and references in particular white people who came to say that after seeing it, they understood—for the first time—the suffering of Indigenous peoples in Canada.
Chief Dan George references a specific political situation in Canada at the time, which necessitated a certain amount of storytelling from Indigenous peoples so that they might “create sympathy and understanding” (5). To Chief Dan George, this was the only recourse these groups had, as they were “depressed economically” (5). He asserts the truth of the message of Rita Joe, but disagrees with the author’s blanket condemnation of the federal and social organizations that have dealt with Indigenous peoples in the past. He acknowledges why this might have hurt some people’s feelings, and argues that “many good people I have known have worked hard and sincerely for our welfare” (5).
In the introduction, Peter Hay writes of the play’s success and contends that the play was of huge importance to the development of Canadian theater as well as to the author, George Ryga. He notes that there was a shortage of Canadian plays at the time this one was written and establishes that Rita Joe became a classic despite the many barriers that stood in its way. Canadian theater experienced an awakening in the 1960s and 70s, where the myth that Canadian plays did not exist was countered by a number of Canadian writers and theater directors, including George Ryga. The Vancouver Playhouse was of central importance at that time because it was the only playhouse to purposefully produce Canadian plays.
Hay writes that Ryga used the play in order to confront the “largely middle-class clientele” of the Vancouver Playhouse “with the reality of Skid Row blocks away” (8). George Ryga risked his own success by publishing this play, as well as that of others like him, who, despite being “one of the best-known dramatists in English Canada, cannot make even a minimal living from writing plays” (9). This makes Ryga all the more commendable to Hay, who believes that the playwright had done an incredible thing for his community, and had played an essential role in the fight for Indigenous rights in Canada.
Chief Dan George presents a political situation in which the dominant majority might have to be convinced to allow space for Indigenous peoples to flourish. He writes that the Indigenous peoples in Canada are “depressed economically”; the tool they have to advocate for themselves is that of human emotion, and with it they might “create sympathy and understanding” (5). This power dynamic is reflected in his contention that there existed at the time organizations that had tried to help Indigenous peoples in Canada. He had to qualify the message of the play as true and necessary despite his rejection of Ryga’s criticism of these organizations.
In the introduction, Hay writes that through his play, Ryga “pointed a finger accusing that audience” (8). For Hay, the power of the play comes from the fact that it raised the problem of the oppression of Indigenous groups in Canada: “white man’s denial of the Indian’s humanity” (9). Part of this denial had to do with ignorance and harmful stereotypes about who these people were. And despite the fact that Ryga did not find fortune and success with his art, Hay believes that this legitimizes the playwright, for as long as Ryga was upsetting the right people he was doing important work in the pursuit of Indigenous rights.
Both the prologue and the introduction situate this play within a very specific political and historical context. The preface, written by Chief Dan George of the Burrard Tribe in British Columbia in 1970, helps to situate the play within the larger political and social dynamics of Canada in the 1970s. At this time, Canada had just experienced two decades of increased political action from indigenous groups, particularly the Métis. Many political organizations at this time pushed for increased participation in urban life, as well as for increased awareness of the effects of colonization and marginalization on the indigenous community in Canada.
Like Chief Dan George, Hay discusses a cultural shift in Canada that occurred from the 1960s to the 1970s, when there was an emergence of Indigenous protest, land claims, and demands for rights. He writes that these voices had been bolstered in the previous decade, and some of this “awakening” had to do with the play itself, which countered a prevailing perception of Indigenous peoples as “the exotic, happy or unhappy savage” that existed in white literature and art up to this point. He references a production that occurred a mere nine years before Rita Joe in which white actors dressed up as Indians for The World of the Wonderful Dark. For Hay, the consequences of Ryga’s success with this play had important consequences in the larger political and social world beyond the theater.