Firehall's Ecstasy of Rita Joe enthralls and bites with both performance and social commentary

Ecstasy of Rita Joe

George Ryga

until 8
December 2007

The Firehall
Arts Centre
, Vancouver

Donna Spencer

This Canadian classic theatre work is still strong and disturbing.  Remounted on its 40th Anniversary for the Firehall Arts Centre’s 25th Anniversary, this production of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe stuns audiences with not only the power of its story and acting – but now with the resonance of history’s truths and tragedy.   Playwright George Ryga’s words are still haunting and critical 20 years after his death in 1987.

Firehall Arts Centre artistic director Donna Spencer has assembled a stellar cast, and directed the production herself, as well as playing the role of school teacher.  And forty years later, the deterioration of Vancouver’s downtown eastside, the continued plight of urban aboriginal peoples, the issues of the Residential School system, the memories of both Oka and Gustaphson Lake First Nations stand-offs with the RCMP, play as much a sociological backdrop as the appointment of Steven Point to Lieutenant Governor of BC, international recognition of Haida and Musqueam artists, and recent Land Claim settlements.

The 1967 premiere of Ecstasy of Rita Joe was both a triumph and tragedy.  It was the first play about Aboriginal issues on a major theatre stage to be taken seriously, shocking audiences with the plight of a First Nations woman from the countryside, who is caught in a downward spiral, trapped by the unforgiving forces of the city. 

The original Vancouver Playhouse production is legendary in Canadian arts, produced by artistic director Joy Coghill, and directed by George Bloomfield, as was the remount which became the first English language play production at the National Arts Centre in 1969.   George Ryga expanded the role of Rita Joe’s father, when
Chief Dan George
stepped into the role.  Ann Mortifee was the young ingénue when she wrote the music for the play, performing it in her role as musician/singer.  George was appointed an officer of the Order of Canada in 1971, while Coghill and Mortifee became members of the Order of Canada in 1990 and 1991.

But the Firehall Arts Centre's production is a worthy contender. 

Lisa Ravensberg is mesmerizing as Rita Joe, alternately capturing both the innocence and bewilderment of the young native woman, lost in the city’s bureaucratic judicial system.   Standing before the magistrate, played sensitively by William B. Davis, more famously known as “cancer man” in the X-Files, Rita Joe tells him she is confused and just wants to go home. 

But she can’t go home.  She is now a victim, stuck in a system of constantly being discriminately charged from vagrancy to prostitution. And she doesn’t know how to get out.

Rita Joe’s boyfriend Jamie Paul is trying to make something of himself in the city.  Kevin Loring steps energetically into the role of Jamie Paul, playing both the sweet and caring boyfriend, as well as the proud angry and indignant young First Nations man, that refuses to be patronized.  He rejects the old ways of Rita’s father (Byron Chief Moon) who is also Chief of the Reserve, the kindly social worker Mr. Homer (Alvin Sanders) who gives Jamie Paul, Rita and his friends “hand-outs”, and he criticizes the Indian agent and the government’s policies.

Duncan Fraser is powerfully subtle the Priest, We see him genuinely concerned at Rita’s plight when he visits her from the reserve in the city jail.  He naively talks to her about God’s love and gently touches her, but Rita repulsively rejects his hand in a move that hints at the sexual abuse of the Church’s role in the Residential School system.

Byron Chief Moon plays the Father, the role originated by Chief Dan George.  He is tall with a gentle loving and thoughtful presence.  His scenes with a young Rita are joyful, but turn sad when he risks his health to visit her in the city in an effort to bring her back to the reserve.

Tricia Collins as Rita Joe’s sister is a wonderful counterpoint to Ravensberg’s Rita Joe.  Although a minor character, Collin’s beauty and portrayal of her character’s return to the Reserve contrasts with the ugliness of Rita’s continued entrapment in the city, and the plight of urban natives with alcohol, drugs and cultural misunderstanding.

William B. Davis has the most challenging job as The Magistrate.  He must work with dialogue that seems patronizing, didactic and dated, yet still find a way to be understanding and caring.  He carries this through with a balance that is infused with the 40 year bittersweet knowledge of what the Aboriginal communities have suffered and triumphed over.  It is up to the audience to be the real judge of how society relates to Canada's Native population.

In the final scene, Rita Joe's sister and father walk out with First Nations drummer and singers.  Rita's father sings a lament.  Another song is followed by Collins and a singer.  It as much a tribute to the passing of Rita Joe, as it is to the new understandings of First Nations culture in our society.  I spoke to cast members after the opening night performance, and they told me this was an addition to the script, which they felt was a fitting and very appropriate

The Ecstasy of Rita Joe is still a powerful work, that despite its long acknowledged structural flaws, continues to work in its abilities as social commentary and wonderful vehicle for actors and production team.  One of the biggest compliments must go to actor Lisa Ravensburg, who immerses herself so convincingly in the role of  a realistically desperate First Nations woman that is all too commonly seen along the Hastings & Main vicinity, that my companion did not recognize her at the opening night reception – where I introduced him to several of the actors.

This play carries a message all Canada should hear,wrote Chief Dan George in the preface of the first publication.  These are words that are relevant and compelling in 1967 as they are forty years later in 2007 to go see this play.

Personal note:

I wanted to see “The Ecstasy of Rita Joe” for many reasons:

Check out these recent reviews:

Vancouver Province: Here's the definitive Rita Joe

reviewvancouver: The Ecstasy of Rita Joe

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

four − = 2