Last Updated on August 29, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 334
The Ecstasy of Rita Joe is the story of a young Native American woman who is falsely accused of prostitution. Rita Joe leaves her reservation and goes to the city to find a job. She struggles to find work and is offered money from undercover policemen. When she accepts the money, she is arrested for prostitution.
The play is set during Rita Joe's trial and opens with the magistrate declaring himself to be stern but fair. Rita attempts to defend herself against the accusations, and the magistrate has a flashback to a young girl he once saw on the side of the road in Cariboo country. He begins to feel partial to Rita—however, his sense of patriotism kicks in, and he stands strong against her. Rita begins having flashbacks to characters from her past. She thinks of Jaimie Paul, a Native American man from her reservation who also moved to the city and at first had success. However, he eventually lost his job and began to drink. Rita has further flashbacks to her father, the priest, her former teacher, and the school board clerk. The school board clerk and her former teacher, Miss Donohue, end up testifying against Rita in the trial, and she is sentenced to thirty days in prison.
After serving her time, Rita reconnects with her friend Jaimie. The two go to Mr. Homer’s Center for Native Americans, where they are too proud to accept the food and clothing offered. Mr. Homer lashes out at Rita, and Jaimie attacks him. Jaimie and Rita are put before the magistrate again, and Jaimie is sentenced to thirty days in prison. Rita’s father comes to the city to bring his daughter home, but Rita refuses because she does not want to leave without Jaimie. When Jaimie is released from prison, the two plan to go out to celebrate. The flashbacks continue and become frenetic. Ultimately, the two friends are circled by a group of racist white men who murder them both.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1012
The Ecstasy of Rita Joe begins as a trial. Rita Joe is the defendant, alone and without representation, against a policeman, who acts as witness against her, and the Magistrate, who will decide her fate. As the Magistrate’s opening lines demonstrate, he is determined to be stern but fair. Rita Joe’s first words, however, undermine the Magistrate’s eloquent exposition: She was picked up by undercover policemen who offered her money and then arrested her for prostitution. The Magistrate continues his paean to justice while Rita Joe professes her innocence and the Singer offers up a haunting, melodic verse.
The futile exchange between Rita and the Magistrate continues, setting a pattern for the rest of act 1. As the trial goes on, however, the past begins to interrupt and inform the present at various intervals. Even the Magistrate is haunted by memories: Rita Joe reminds him of a young, poorly dressed girl he saw once standing all alone by the side of the road in the harsh Cariboo country. He would like to extend to her the sympathy that this recollection arouses in him, but his sense of duty finally overwhelms his humanity, and he reverts to being officious. The Magistrate becomes increasingly exasperated as he questions Rita about whether she understands the charges against her, whether she can provide witnesses in her favor, and whether she is a carrier of venereal disease.
For her part, Rita seems neither capable of nor interested in defending herself. There is not much she understands or trusts about the system in which she finds herself caught. Thus, she welcomes those figures from her past who intrude upon the action, disrupting her dialogue with the Magistrate and distracting her from the chronic fatigue, hunger, and sickness from which she suffers. Jaimie Paul, Eileen Joe, the Old Woman, and David Joe are American Indians and appear to Rita alone; white people such as the Priest, Mr. Homer, the Teacher, the Policeman, the School Board Clerk, and various Witnesses (who double as murderers) appear both in Rita’s dreams and in the trial.
Like Rita, Jaimie Paul succumbs to the lure of the city. Upon his arrival there, he is exuberant and optimistic: He rents a room, finds a job, and delights in how different life is away from the reserve. His hopes fade quickly, however, and he loses his job, starts to drink, and takes to hanging around with other unemployed young American Indian men. Still, he will not return home; he is proud, impatient, and in disagreement with David Joe about how best to run the reserve. David Joe is troubled and sees his people as caught between the old ways and the new. He urges patience and a return to the land, but neither Rita nor Jaimie will listen. Still, Rita is torn; she loves and misses her father and is disturbed by news from the Old Woman and Eileen Joe that he has been ill. With her sister, Rita reminisces about berry picking during the summer; with her father, Rita recalls their favorite story, about how a man once came out of the bush with an extraordinary offer for him. These moments lighten the drama, alternating with the darker, heavier moments provided by representatives of the white man’s world.
The Priest has known Rita from the time she was a child; however, he offers only inadequate, clichéd advice about resisting the allure of the sinful city. Miss Donohue, her former teacher, also reveals herself to have been singularly inappropriate for her job on the reserve; she reappears during the trial as a witness against Rita. The School Board Clerk further attests Rita’s lack of scholarly ambition when he says that she never replied to a letter in which he recommended she continue her education through correspondence courses; Rita counters by claiming that she never received his letter. Between the testimony from these upstanding citizens and that of another witness (a former employer who seduced Rita and then paid her for her compliance), Rita’s fate is sealed. The Magistrate sentences her to thirty days in prison.
Act 2 opens with Rita behind bars. The Priest comes to visit her in jail, but instead of providing comfort, he leaves Rita angry and defiant and cursing his idea of God. The Singer offers a haunting refrain which will be repeated at intervals throughout the rest of the play:
Sleepless hours, heavy nightsDream your dreams so prettyGod was gonna have a laughAn’ gave me a job in the city!
Once Rita serves her term, she links up with her embittered friend, Jaimie. Hungry and impoverished, they eventually end up at Mr. Homer’s center for Native Americans. Jaimie proudly refuses the food and clothing he is offered, and Rita reluctantly follows suit. Frustrated, Jaimie taunts and provokes Mr. Homer to the point where the charitable veneer of this socially responsible man drops away: He unjustly lashes out at Rita, calling her a slut and a whore. Rita and Jaimie attack him wildly and are once more brought before the Magistrate, who sentences Jaimie to thirty days. David Joe arrives in the city to find his daughter and take her back to the reserve with him, but out of loyalty to Jaimie she refuses to go. Rita lands in prison again, but not before a final verbal confrontation with the Magistrate in which the clash between their two cultures is clearly delineated.
The final scene is brief and brutal. Once out of prison, Rita and Jaimie plan to go out on the town, but voices from their past rise to a frenzied crescendo, and the Murderers close in around them. Jaimie is beaten and thrown in front of an oncoming train; Rita is raped and dies of her injuries. The play ends with their funeral: The young American Indians are defiant and the Singer’s song is exultant, but the final tone is poignant. Eileen Joe recalls that “when Rita Joe first come to the city—she told me . . . The cement made her feet hurt.”
Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 184
The Ecstasy of Rita Joe by George Ryga is about a young Native girl, Rita, who leaves the reserve, Caribou Country, and goes to the city to look for a job. Rita experiences racism and poverty in the city. For instance, upon her arrival in the city, Rita encounters a terrible ordeal where she is arrested and arraigned in court.
While in the city, Rita is offered money by police officers, which she accepts. Once she takes the money, the police officers arrest her for prostitution. Many people testify against Rita Joe, which makes it difficult for her to convince the magistrate of her innocence. The magistrate orders Rita to look for people who will vouch for her in eight hours failure to which she will be taken to jail. During the trial, Rita continually remembers her past and has several visions of her future.
Rita’s life in the city proves to be challenging as she constantly appears before the same magistrate. Besides prostitution, she is also charged with theft. She ends up being brutally murdered by white men who dislike her race.
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