THE ECSTASY OF RITA JOE
These are historic days for theatre in Vancouver. For the first time anywhere, Canada’s two most important plays about aboriginal experience are on stage simultaneously. While Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters gets an excellent production at UBC’s Frederic Wood Theatre, the Firehall remounts George Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe on the play’s 40th anniversary, with an extraordinary performance by Lisa C. Ravensbergen in the title role.
Premiering at the Playhouse during the self-congratulatory celebrations of Centennial year, Rita Joe exposed the dark underside of the Canadian Dream—the tragedy of young Native people coming to the city in hopes of a better life, hitting a thick wall of bureaucracy, discrimination, and violence.
White playwright Ryga’s powerful vision of Natives as tragic victims remained the dominant theatrical portrait until 1986 when Cree playwright Highway offered his more rounded, comedy-inflected perspective on First Nations experience.
Ryga’s play speaks of a particular time in the past—Rita’s boyfriend Jaimie rents a room for $7 a week. But it loses none of its power or relevance as brought to life in Donna Spencer’s terrific production.
Rita is already disoriented when we first meet her, astonished at the bizarre rules of the white world. In the clutches of the legal system, she’s interrogated by a magistrate (William B. Davis) whose gentle questioning masks an insidious racism. Her experiences are no different with the other representatives of authority: a priest (Duncan Fraser), teacher (Donna Spencer), and social worker (Alvin Sanders). These scenes alternate with Rita’s elegiac memories of her sister (Tricia Collins) and father (Byron Chief Moon) who remain on the reserve.
But Rita can’t go home again. For better or worse she’ll make her life in the city with funny, sweet-tempered Jaimie (Kevin Loring), who gets angry when he recognizes the ways they’re patronized and their possibilities limited by those who have the power. In the end his rage proves as impotent as Rita’s resignation.
Ravensbergen owns the stage. Inhabiting Rita, she breaks loose with flashes of delicious humour and hysterical, ecstatic dancing, then shrinks back into herself, the hopeful little girl buried inside the fearful, disintegrating woman. Loring keeps step with her beautifully.
The veteran actors provide a marvelous counterpoint. Fraser does great work as the Indian-friendly priest, just hinting at the dark history of sexual abuse in the relationship of the Church to Native people. Chief Moon plays David Joe, the role inaugurated by Chief Dan George, with powerful, elegant simplicity. Tracey Power provides ironic musical commentary as the folksinger originally performed by Ann Mortifee.
The pace and tension flag from time to time and need to be ramped up. Otherwise, this is a definitive production of a great play.