Canadian theatre is marked by diversity in its themes and forms, and its establishment has played a role in promoting and institutionalizing First Nations productions. Through these works the following ideas can be explored through the Native lens: social issues of class, sexual matter, politics, trauma, memory, cultural identity, and cultural difference. In the two plays Almighty Voice and His Wife by Daniel David Moses and The Ecstasy of Rita Joe by George Ryga the audience is given the opportunity to revisit a side of Canadian history that many would like to forget. Both pieces are effective in conveying their message through figurative and literal white face/ red face.
The controversial use of white face and red face as utilized in the Canadian plays, Almighty Voice and His Wife and the Ecstasy of Rita Joe highlight the persecution of the noble savage by the true savagery of the dominant race. This dehumanization is characterized by the interlocutor portrayed by White Girl in white face towards the character Ghost in Almighty Voice. As well with the Magistrate’s attitude toward Rita Joe in The Ecstasy of Rita Joe. The use of native white face to confront racist stereotypes was established by the British Colonial powers, along with the imposed negative image of redskin by the majority of the population. The forced mask of identity prescribed to these characters by the dominant culture puts to risk their native self. The First Nations treatment as helpless children in both plays displays the interest of creating dependency on the group from their position of power. The objective is to have the minority aboriginal culture conform to the mainstream culture. Where the two plays diverge is in the final act with one ending in hope, the other in tragedy. These two different endings model the direction the dominant white race can take in its relation to the oppressed First Nations.
In theatre, the audience is pulled into a world where the impossible can become possible. In the first act of Almighty Voice a romantic account of Almighty Voice courting his wife is performed with the act ending with Almighty Voice being shot down by the Mounties in the largest manhunt in Saskatchewan history. As the lights flood the stage at the start of the second act both actors faces are dawned in white face make up. Moses’ use of white face integrates the minstrel show style of the past, where white actors portrayed the racially stereotype African Americans used black face. Helen Gilbert describes Moses’ use of the minstrel show format as, “a way of critiquing stereotypes of indigenous people” (Gilbert 682). This usage of white face has a strategy to reflect to the primarily white audiences the ways in which images of natives have been formed in popular culture. Through this method the injustices of a colonial power are revisited and addressed.
Moving half a century forward from the Wild West setting of Almighty Voice the backdrop of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe is established in a modern Canadian city in the 1960s.The play tells the story of Rita Joe, a young Shuswap women who has left the reserve for the city in search of work. For Rita Joe, life on the reservation holds a limited future, and the city, while it offers much in the way of material advantages, provides no equality of opportunity. The story line centres on Rita Joe’s repeat appearances in court before an unsympathetic magistrate who provides a stereotypical Native examination of that time period on Rita Joe. As Peter Hinton, Artist director of English Theatre describes in The Ecstasy of Rita Joe Study Guide, “she struggles to mount a defence of her character and actions” (Hinton 4). Rita Joe is, “poor, female and Aboriginal”(4) these factors mixed together add to Rita Joe’s injustice to her human experience. The justification from the dominate white race on the treatment of Rita Joe is expressed in the article Whites Singing in Red Face in British Columbia in the 1950s by Daniel Keyes as, “Red Face operates as a displacement to generate multiple alibis about how invasion-colonization or settlement is inevitable and equals progress.” (Keyes 35). The depiction of an unfortunate consequence of a cultural divide shines a light on the savage actions of the majority.
The race of a human being does not determine their worth. For Rita Joe the figurative negative redskin image placed on her by the Magistrate and other white characters, labels and condemns her. In the first court case against Rita Joe she is charged with “Vagrancy” (Ryga 30). Vagrancy being the condition of an individual, who is idle, and has no visible means of support. When in reality it was the shortcoming of the white man’s social and judicial system which lacked the necessary support for Rita Joe. Throughout the trial scene the Magistrate ignores Rita Joe’s requests for food, sleep, and help when she is not feeling well. This denial of human needs demonstrates the Magistrate and system he represents of having little concern for her as a person. The First Witness in the trial describes his experience with Rita Joe as he encountered her as a prostitute who he, “slapped her around a bit” (Ryga 36) treating her as an object rather than the human she is. The First Witness also recalls Rita Joe’s reaction to him during this sexual transaction, “ Called me a dog, pig … some filthy kind of animal” (36). This description of the First Witness by Rita Joe is accurate because the actions carried out by him are inhumane and animal like. The Second Witness taking advantage of Rita Joe in a position of authority laughs off the young woman’s fear and her lost dream “Goddammit but I wish I was a school teacher” (37). These privileged males of the white dominant society had no true concern or feelings for the human needs of Rita Joe. Peter Hinton states, “Racist and sexist stereotypes deny the dignity and worth of indigenous women, encouraging some men to feel they can get away with acts of hatred against them” (Hinton 13). The red face placed on First Nations by a savage society removes their human value, allowing Natives to be treated as disposable objects. The reoccurring theme of degrading First Nations was long in practice before the 1967 premier of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, for the white man’s burden of the past aimed to remove any traces of true Native identity.
A way to gain control over an individual is to strip them of their original identity and impose the new desired view. The character Ghost in white face in the second act of Almighty Voice is the subject of racial slurs and puns to discourage him from preforming his ghost dance by the Interlocutor. Such lines by the Interlocutor “Hey dead man! Hey red man! Hey Indian!” (Moses 29) and “Come on use the queen’s tongue, or I’ll sell you to a cigar store” (29) are an attempt to remove the Ghost’s identity as he responds to the Interlocutor in his Cree language. The threat of selling the Ghost to a cigar shop is another way of objectifying Ghost, which for the British colony setting for the play depicts what would be a common shared view by the majority. According to Mary Blackstone in Renegotiating a Role for the Ghost of Cultural Memory in Four Cree Plays, “ Moses imposes a collective responsibility on his audience for the colonizing agent” (Blackstone 186). The audience is forced into reviewing the relationship between First Nations and an invading settler group who dismissed the Native’s rights of preserving a culture. This unbalanced relationship revealed through white face brings forth the true cruel character of the colonizers. As the Ghost and Interlocutor retell Almighty Voice’s tale the Interlocutor takes pleasure in describing Almighty Voice’s death in the lines, “However-how-ever-he was bleeding a lot. Red blood oozing from red skin. Oh what a thrill! I’m not offending you, am I” (Moses 33). The death of Almighty Voice has no significance to the white authority and is more or less celebrated along with the use of the word “red” to assure the audience, because of the skin colour he gets a “thrill” from watching it bleed is that of an “Indian”. The true opinion of the citizens of the territory are voiced in the Interlocutor’s declaration set up by the Ghost, with the ending lines stating “Oh friends, the petted Indians have proved the bad ones and this gives weight to the wise adage, friends, that the only good Indians are the dead ones” (Moses 38). The Natives are viewed as an annoyance who must be exterminated. The inability to care for another groups needs highlights the underdevelopment of a society.
The powerlessness felt by First Nations with their relationship to the Crown is a point to be considered in identifying the harsh actions of the European settlers on the minority. In both works, the notion of infantilization is present, which is the process of treating a group like children or projecting childlike dependency onto that group. As Keyes writes, “the portrayal of First Nations as simple child-like creatures by invader settlers . . . endorse implicitly the view that colonization is a part of the inevitable development of Canada into a civilized nation”(Keyes 35). This behaviour is magnificently depicted by the character Mr. Homer in The Ecstasy of Rita Joe,a man who works at the “Centre” a shelter for young Aboriginals. At the “Centre” people come to receive food, clothing and a place to sleep. Mr. Homer relies on the Natives’ dependency on him to fulfill his feeling of doing selfless work. Mr. Homer himself imposes this red face child like behaviour in the lines, “Indian people… specially the women... get more of a kick digging through stuff that’s piled up like that…”(Ryga 33). The quote is referring to the clothes donated to the shelter and Mr. Homer explains that Native women would rather sort through piles of used clothing than shop at a store where clothing is presented on a rack (33). Mr. Homer’s character represents the tragic reality of the cultural divide separating Aboriginals into an inferior child character contrasted to the privileged white adult. Rita Joe’s partner Jamie Paul who is also a young struggling First Nation individual points out the flaws of Mr.Homer to other Natives in the Centre in the lines, “Be men! (Pointing after Mr. Homer) He’s got no kids! … We’re his kids an he means to keep it that way”(52). This is an allusion to the Federal Government is in handling Native issues. The Federal Government is not interested in discovering why they’re failing to thrive in the city, but would rather continue with the status quo and allow them maintain a life of dependency so they are forced to conform to survive. In the same fashion the character Ghost in Almighty Voice is subject to this childish characteristic of red face treatment from the Interlocutor. Once again through white face the Interlocutor approaches Ghost, “Let me smell your breath. Bah! Like death warned over. I’ve warned you before. You choose booze and you’re back on the street where I found you” (Moses 31). The idea that the Interlocutor is good fortune for Ghost is ironic in the sense the Europeans introduced alcohol to First Nations, crippling communities. Furthermore, the Interlocutor shows this control held by the white majority in a latter scene in “ Did you read how tranquil and subordinate they’ve become under our wise and humane government?” (45). The government acting as a parent presumed knowing what is best for First Nations. To patronize a group is another method of gaining control and power but what about the elimination of the problem itself?
The Vanishing Indian is a myth that was introduced by European settlers who arrived in North America. Upon their arrival, the Europeans wanted the land and its resources, and they wanted to control, manage, and colonize the Native people. In order to achieve this goal, the Europeans would have to make the Native people disappear, or convince them that the European way of life was better and therefore, assimilate them into a more civilized way of life (Blackstone 189). In Almighty Voice the white face on the two First Nations actors is a great example of the goal of the Vanishing Indian myth. In the opening scene of Act two when Ghost is doing his ghost dance the Interlocutor calls to him, “You dare call these furtive foot steps, these frenzied flailings of arms like wings, dancing stop it. It’s nonsense” (29). The Interlocutor is disregarding a sacred part of Ghost’s culture and would much rather him to fit the mould of his “proper” culture. A scene in the play where the true savagery of the governing race is displayed is when the Interlocutor is making the transition back to white girl in the lines:
I recognize you now. You’re that redskin! You’re that wagon burner! The feather head, Chief Bullshit. No, Chief Shitting Bull! Oh, no no. Bloodthirsty savage. Yes, you’re primitive, uncivilized, a cantankerous cannibal! . . . Weirdly mad and dangerous, alcoholic, diseased, dirty filthy, stinking, ill-fated degenerate race, vanishing, dying, lazy. . . (56)
Through these lines an audience can reflect on the words of the Interlocutor, none of which are being phrased to Natives for the first time. Rita Joe is subjected to similar persecution from the Magistrate while she is standing trial in an attempt to remove her identity. The vanishing Indian theme is played out again in the Magistrate’s lines, “You should fix your hair … perhaps even change your name and try to tame that accent that sounds like you have a mouthful of sawdust… There is no peace in being extraordinary!” (Ryga 37). The foregoing functions as an insight into race-based thinking, placing a higher value on whiteness. The push for assimilation is truly the ultimate ambition for the masters as it clears the slate of wrong doing on a culture that will no longer exist.
Though these two plays relate strongly with each other with a strong message of the native identity being sabotaged, the ending represents two different futures. The interesting “provocative twist in whiteface concept” (Gilbert 698) used by Moses has a powerful message of reclaiming the identity that has been taken away from the imposing whites. As Gilbert states:
Native Characters whose experiences within white culture have led them to internalize its racism against themselves. In this context, whiteness marks the externalized faces that the characters need to discard to recuperate their identities. (689)
By the end of the final scene of Almighty Voice Ghost is able to see through the white face and see his, “White girl, my White Girl” (Moses 56). The wiping off of White Girl’s mask is a chance for her to reassume her Native identity taken away from the cruel whites. As the play comes to an end, Ghost is permitted to perform his dance while White Girl lifts a baby-sized bundle of cloth to the audience. The baby size bundle of cloth and Ghost’s dance acting as symbols representing the hope for Aboriginal culture to be resilient and live on. For Rita Joe the unfortunate foreshadowing by the Magistrate becomes a reality for her with his prediction of “ At worst, kicked or beaten to death by some angry white scum” (Ryga 55). Rita Joe is murdered and raped along with Jamie Paul being murdered. The deaths of Rita Joe and Jamie Paul highlight the fatal flaw in the relationship between Canada and it’s Aboriginal people. Two plays, two endings, one for hope the other for the carrying on of disastrous practices.
Race cannot be chosen. In the two works Almighty Voice and His Wife and The Ecstasy of Rita Joe,the use of literal and figurative white face/ red face is explored. Both acting as agents to identify the true savage, the colonizing whites. The disregard of rights for Rita Joe and Almighty Voice from the society that has failed them and forced them into roles against their true self. Being a member of the Native race translated into treatment as a child who must rely on the support of the government to survive, long are the distant days of teaching European settlers how to survive on their land. Forced assimilation and a strong movement to correct the native culture into a higher valued white civilization. White face and red face with controversial origins now serve as a teaching tool to audiences to show the over signification placed on race. The next step is for the audience to leave the theatre transformed with an understanding of the privilege of the dominant culture and desiring social justice.
Moses, Daniel David. Almighty Voice and His Wife. Toronto: Playwrights Canada, 2001. Print.
Ryga, George. "The Ecstasy of Rita Joe." Modern Canadian Plays. Ed. Jerry Wasserman. 5.th ed. Vol. 1. Vancouver: Talon, 2012. 23-58. Print.
Blackstone, Mary. "Renegotiating a Role for the Ghost of Cultural Memory in Four Cree Plays." Signatures of the Past: Cultural Memory in Contemporary Anglophone North American Drama. Ed. Marc Maufort. Bruxelles: P.I.E. Peter Lang, 2008. 185-189. Print
Gilbert, Helen. "Black and White and Read All Over Again: Indigenous Minstrelsy in Contemporary Canadian and Australian Theatre." Project Muse 55.4 (2003): 679-98. Print.
Hinton, Peter. "The Ecstasy of Rita Joe Study Guide." National Arts Centre 5 Feb. 2009: 1-21. Print.
Keyes, Daniel. "Whites Singing Red Face in british Columbia in the 1950s." Theatre Research in Canada / Recherches théâtrales au Canada [Online], 32.1 (2011): n. pag. Web. 10 Nov. 2014