Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 512 words.)