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"Give me back the real me": the politics of identity and The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, 1967-1992 Krueger, Colleen

Abstract

Practically since its celebrated premiere in 1967, George Ryga's drama about urban Native Canadians, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, has enjoyed canonical status in Canada. Yet the same three decades that have seen over 200 productions of Rita Joe have also witnessed radical transformations in the ways First Nations' peoples are represented, heard and perceived in Canada. How has a play written about Natives by a non-Native man in 1967 managed such a long production history on such contentious and unstable ground? How do identity politics influence this piece of theatre, and how does the theatre shape identity politics? As popular notions about Native identities have changed and as Native people continue to represent themselves in and put of court, and on and off the stage, this play about Native people in Canada has been performed and re-performed. But the directors, the venues, the actors, the costumes and sets, the language itself and (most significantly) the resulting characterizations have changed over the years — in subtle and rather dramatic ways. While the words and the fundamental plot of Rita Joe have remained the same, its messages about Native identity has evolved since 1967, in relation to social, political, economic, and cultural changes. Indeed, historical developments impact the particular ways an "Indian" is represented in a particular time; what makes a "real Indian" tends to shift with the political and social needs of the moment. This paper examines the way Native identity is represented in eight productions of Rita Joe mounted between 1967 and 1992, creating a production history that focuses on the relationship between representations of identity and particular moments in time and space and, ultimately, discerns a complex and symbiotic relationship between the aesthetic, creative world and the historio-political world. Perhaps most remarkably, the play stretches to accommodate diverse cultural narratives, gathering meaning from the identity politics of its particular performance place and time.

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