A central theme of the play The Ecstasy of Rita Joeis colonization, as Indigenous peoples in Canada still suffer effects of the colonization of their lands from hundreds of years before. Rita Joe does not receive justice because the colonizers cannot understand anything about her, because they don't listen to her testimony when she provides it, and because they have little impetus to look beyond stereotype and prejudice when interacting with Indigenous peoples. Not being able to understand her, they destroy her along with her friends and family, and condemn her as a threat to the order of society, because her truth threatens the very system upon which their society is built.
Assimilation is a process through which individuals or groups of different heritages or cultures are absorbed into the dominant culture. In the play, the pressure to assimilate is embodied by Miss Donohue, Rita's teacher, who scolds Rita on her ability to melt herself down into the melting pot. The Magistrate also pressures Rita to assimilate, telling her "There is no peace in being extraordinary!" Pressures to assimilate are often pressures to submit more readily to a dominant class. The white people in Rita's life who told her to give up the parts of herself that differ from the general population were not doing so for her good, but for the good of their own privilege.
Ryga utilizes the character of Mr. Homer to demonstrate how those who intend to help Indigenous peoples often end up infantilizing them. Infantilization is the prolonged treatment of someone who has a mental capacity greater than a child like a child. Mr. Homer provides food and clothing for Indigenous peoples in the city who are in need of help, but he does not help them secure real opportunities with which they might change their situations. By infantilizing the population he pretends to be helping, Mr. Homer is using a racist tactic for suppression. By painting Indigenous peoples as individuals who must be saved from themselves, as children would be, Mr. Homer perpetuates the narrative according to which they cannot help themselves.
The economic struggles of Indigenous peoples in Canada is a recurring theme of the play, as well the main source of disagreement between Jaimie and David Joe. Jaimie and David Joe both know that the situation of the Indigenous person in Canada must improve, because their community will not survive as it is for much longer. Indigenous peoples were shut out of the economic marketplace. They were stuck on lands that were mostly infertile and in communities that held few prospects for economic growth. When they attempted to move into the city for the opportunities it offered the white population, they faced poverty, joblessness, and eventually, in the case of Rita Joe, death.
Incarceration, and the connections of this condition to class and race, emerges as a central theme of the play. The way in which the state deals with Rita's poverty is by incarcerating her, rather than through social programs that might have taken her out of the condition that pushed her to crime. Over the course of the play, Rita is continually punished for crimes that she may or may not have actually committed. She is stripped of her freedom in many ways that others in her situation would not have been. She is punished for doing what she can to survive.
Jaimie is often accused of being too prideful because he will not accept Mr. Homer's offerings and he refuses to accept discrimination from the bar that he wants to go to with his friends. At the same time, Jaimie advocates for dispensing of pride that has kept his community silent, indicated in his fight with David Joe: "They're looking for Indians that stay proud even when they hurt... just so long's they don't ask for their rights!" (113) At the end of the play, Jaimie is murdered for attempting to save Rita Joe from her fate. Through the character of Jaimie, Ryga illuminates the societal penalization of pride in members of the community it works to marginalize.
Hope / Ascension
Rita Joe's story is a tragedy that offers no clear message of hope about the situation of the Indigenous person in 1960s Canada. In many ways, the Indigenous characters of this play are desperately searching for something to hope for, but they cannot find it. Eileen hopes for a man she can believe in, Jaimie hopes for respect, David Joe hopes for his daughter to come home. At Rita's funeral, the white structure is finally subverted as Eileen silences the white mourners in order to give her own testimony about her sister's life. In telling the white mourners "no more," the play ends on a slightly more hopeful message of testimony beyond the white narrative. We are reminded of the audience of the Vancouver playhouse when this play was put on, which was mostly white and middle-class, and the play itself can be reframed as a testimony and an agent for change.
The Ecstasy of Rita Joe Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Ecstasy of Rita Joe is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.