COLUMN: Paying tribute to George Ryga

The first Marginal Arts Festival, held last week, was a tribute to one of Summerland’s greats, George Ryga.

George Ryga

The first Marginal Arts Festival, held last week, was a tribute to one of Summerland’s greats, George Ryga.

Ryga, a renowned Canadian playwright, novelist and screenwriter, lived in Summerland from 1963 until his death in 1987.

I was introduced to his collection of work in 1987, when I read several of his plays.

His stories about Aboriginal people in the 1963 play, Indian and the 1967 stage play, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, and his depiction of youth culture in his 1969 play, Grass and Wild Strawberries, left me feeling uncomfortable.

These plays addressed social problems, but did not provide answers. That part was up to the reader or the viewer.

Later, as I read more of Ryga’s works, I became more impressed with his ability to speak on behalf of those who were often forgotten, ignored or mistreated by the rest of society.

He was an advocate for those who had been marginalized.

I’ve seen this in a number of his plays, in fiction and even in letters to the editor which appear in back issues of the Summerland Review, addressing issues of the day.

Ryga’s plays and novels were stories which needed to be told, and he was able to tell these stories with compassion.

The Ecstasy of Rita Joe is the story of an Aboriginal woman living in Vancouver.

Those around her are depicted as well-intentioned people whose actions and attitudes do more harm than good.

This play has been staged and studied around the world and it still has impact today.

It is considered one of the most important works in Canadian literature and Canadian theatre.

Canada and the rest of the world have changed significantly since the majority of Ryga’s works were written in the 1960s and 1970s, but some of the issues he raised are still concerns for us, here and now.

The Ecstasy of Rita Joe touches on themes and conditions which continue to exist today.

There are other groups who are also disadvantaged, marginalized, overlooked or mistreated. Their stories also deserve to be told.

The stories of today’s marginalized people may take on a form quite unlike that of Ryga’s plays.

They may include cartoons, photography, poetry, music or other forms of artistic expression.

They may be controversial. They may make many feel uncomfortable. They may even be ignored or overlooked by those who most need to see or read them. But they still need to be told.

The need now is for people willing to tell those stories, to speak out about the social concerns they see and to raise important questions.

If that is accomplished, it will be the most powerful way to honour Ryga’s artistic legacy.

Thanks to all the volunteers who have worked to organize this festival and keep Ryga’s message alive.

His plays and novels remain relevant for us today.

John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.


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