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Last Updated on August 27, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 348

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The Ecstasy of Rita Joe is about the plight of indigenous women in North America, particularly Canada. The larger or more general theme is the struggle that impoverished Native Americans and First Nations members experience in the predominantly white colonizer's society. However, the play also highlights the abuse indigenous women face from male members of their families and reservations.

The title of the play is a reference to the idea of Catholic saints displaying stigmata—the miraculous suffering of wounds that resemble those of Christ. Rita Joe experiences her own kind of "ecstasy" or stigmata in the form of injustice, oppression by patriarchy, and eventually rape and violent death. The playwright intends to convey that through her suffering, Rita transcends the pain and sorrow of mortals to become a saintly figure and a martyr essentially crucified by racist male violence.

Another theme concerns the flaws in the Canadian judicial system. The Canadian court has limited understanding of aboriginal cultures and their history of struggle in a modern Anglo-centric society. Rita not only has to fight for survival against dangerous men in the city and abusive, alcoholic men in her own reservation, but against the white male-dominant judicial system of Canada as well.

Throughout the play, the audience or reader can see the clash of white Canadian culture and indigenous culture. The priest represents one of the most effective weapons of colonialism: Christianity. When the priest and Rita get into an argument, she criticizes the Christian idea of God.

Lastly, the theme of the past haunting the protagonist is evident from the first act of the play. The past literally and figuratively "haunt" Rita by appearing in her dreams or appearing in the actual trial. Her past is laid bare before the court to examine.

The magistrate himself experiences a flashback in which the memory of a woman he once met in Cariboo country haunts him. It almost inspires him to be more lenient toward Rita, but he quickly regains his authoritarian mindset. This symbolizes the loss of humanity in a society engineered by corrupt political and economic systems.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 512

The Ecstasy of Rita Joe is widely considered to be a play about the white culture’s denial of the American Indian’s humanity. In particular, George Ryga points to the inadequacy of those organizations that deal with Indians; according to him, the Church, social services, the schools, and the legal system all dole out humiliation in the guise of charity and fail American Indians because they expect them simply to shed their cultural differences and assume white society’s ways. Further, the play shows how adrift the American Indian people are: Life on the reservation holds no future, and the city, while it offers much in the way of material advantages, provides no equality of opportunity. Rita and Jaimie remain caught in the enduring conflicts between generations, between whites and Indians, and between the land and the city.

White people receive unsympathetic treatment in the play, and the institutions in which they place so much faith are condemned. With the possible exception of the Magistrate, all the white people are one-dimensional, unsavory characters. However, even he, despite the fact that Rita’s youth and vulnerability unsettle him, is far too identified with his official role to allow his humanity to prevail. Although Rita claims to have been entrapped by the police who arrested her, the Magistrate is unwilling to believe her. His feelings range from fumbling attempts at concern and kindness to disgust at her alleged crimes. Rita remains doomed not only by her racial origins but also by her gender: Except for Miss Donohue, all of her accusers are men, and many of them view her as little more than a sexual object. All the white characters, even the socially conscious ones such as Mr. Homer, are shown to be afraid of American Indians because of their preconceived notions of them as unpredictable, violent, and primitive. Thus, suggests Ryga, white people typically react to Indians with either condescension or disapproval.

For their part, the American Indians in the play are angry, defiant, and proud. They cannot seem to escape the distorted, stereotyped image that white culture has always held of them. Ryga portrays Indians as unsophisticated, even childlike, as far as white culture goes. He also suggests that the distance between the two races is at least partly rooted in their linguistic differences. Much of the American Indians’ difficulty in dealing with whites lies in their different attitudes toward language. Words as spoken by the Magistrate are businesslike and fact-oriented; Rita, for whom English is a second language, uses words warily, yet whimsically. Lost in her dream world, Rita at one point remembers aloud that “a train whistle is white, with black lines . . . a sad woman is a room with the curtains shut. . . .” As demonstrated during the trial, Rita and the Magistrate talk past each other: He questions her and lectures her, but Rita is too frightened and mistrustful to answer him directly. White culture interprets this failure to communicate as defiance and an unwillingness to cooperate. Thus, misunderstanding and misinterpretation form the basis of exchanges between the two cultures.