Tuesday, August 7, 2007

ecstasy in canadian theatre

Sorry for the protracted absence, loyal readers. I have been away reading an anthology of Canadian plays, and with the pace I was going I felt really unmotivated to stop and write after each play. So I've decided to do it this way instead -- I'm spending today writing two-paragraph review / summary / thematic inspection pieces on each of the plays I have read. Then tomorrow is the dawn of contemporary Canadian literature... hallelujah!

The Ecstasy of Rita Joe
by George Ryga

Rita Joe is a native woman standing accused of the greatest crime of the 1960s -- she has not successfully assimilated herself into white culture. The white people in positions of power who are pro-assimilation (the policeman, the magistrate) mistakenly believe that the only thing standing between aboriginal segregation and assimilation is a lack of linguistic fluency. As a result, Rita's rights and obligations under the law are never explained to her fully. The magistrate asks Rita repeatedly is she wants a lawyer, but never answers her repeated question of "what for?" Rita doesn't understand what is being asked of her, yet is expected to "speak for herself" in court because she understand English. The magistrate is unwilling to accept that there may be some problems in the vein of cultural literacy that hinder Rita's ability to defend herself in a court of law. She is not of that white tradition of law and therefore she needs a guide through the system, and this is repeatedly denied to her throughout the play.

Interestingly, there are those white people who condemn Rita not for her failure to assimilate into white culture, but for her desire to leave the reservation at all. Rita's priest is chief among those who believe that the only place for aboriginal people is on government-determined reserves. While the priest is a sympathetic voice, interested in the plight of the members of his flock and genuinely believing that the best place for all of them is together in a segregated community. What is interesting about this is that it places aboriginal people in an almost completely place-less situation. They are expected to either assimilate fully into white culture or remain in their government-sanctioned ghetto-reserves. There is no space for a native person who seeks to retain their culture and community but access the opportunities of larger cities. That space, it is made clear throughout this play, does not exist yet. In the end, Ryga's message seems to be that we need such a space if Canada is ever to get along amicably with her aboriginal people.

In the end, the play is a sympathetic one, but is problematic for one key reason: even the most sympathetic portrayal of minority issues cannot be exempt from problems of appropriation of voice. This is a problem not simply because Ryga is white, but because Rita Joe was originally played by a classically-trained white actress. This play itself was radical for Canada in 1967 because it probed a question and an issue we fear to talk about -- we don't want to believe there is racism in Canada, even today. But more alarming is the fact that it took until 1981 for The Ecstasy of Rita Joe to be performed by Native actors in all the Native roles. Until 1981, we were still essentially watching a "black-face" of the 49th parallel. Perhaps what is most thought-provoking about this play is not even the content, but the circumstances of its performances.

No comments: