Thursday, April 18, 2013

Reader's Diary #986- George Ryga: The Ecstasy of Rita Joe

For the past few years, I've been— with a few exceptions— limiting my reading of plays to Shakespeare. Now that I've finally finished with his works and have been reading more contemporary plays. I haven't been really comparing the old to the new, understanding of course that any literature written such a long time ago would read quite differently than modern writing. However, with George Ryga's The Ecstasy of Rita Joe I was still taken aback by how different it was than Shakespeare.

On the surface that probably looks like an insult. Shakespeare is supposed to be the ultimate playwright, after all. It's not my intention to pick one over the other. But in Shakespeare there's virtually no stage direction and The Ecstasy of Rita Joe is almost 50% stage direction. The latter also has a very specific, unique stage set up.

I found it somewhat more difficult then to read The Ecstasy of Rita Joe. I'm not great at visualizing settings in books. With Shakespeare I most often imagined the scenes happening where they were supposed to be set, not on a stage at all. Venice was Venice, not a stage with Venice scenery in the background. Reading the Ecstasy of Rita Joe it's hard to get away from the stage at all.

Would an audience have more success being transported into the settings of Rita Joe? I would imagine, but then it's also not crucial that they do. The settings only change mostly as flashbacks. Rita, a Shuswap girl from a reservation and now living in the city, is on trial for prostitution. The flashbacks serve mostly to show how she has ended up in this predicament and the lead up to the tragic conclusion. However, characters simply walk into a flashback, sometimes just miming the props, returning to the frame scene, jumping into different ages and so on. I gather that the various scenes are not to represent specific times and events as much as the surreal memories of said times and events.

The Ecstasy of Rita Joe is almost alarmingly as relevant today as it was when it written in 1967. Try to read without thinking of the Idle No More movement. I bet you can't. Interestingly, Ryga wasn't an aboriginal man. He was, however, a minority and it appears that many First Nations people felt that he at least captured some of the harsh truths about their existence in Canada. Academy nominee Chief Dan George of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation starred in the first production of the play, as well as in its successful Washington, D.C. run.

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