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Review: Honour Beat, an important work of Indigenous art, watered down by complexity

Monique Mojica, Paula-Jean Prudat and Tracey Nepinak in Honour Beat.

Brian Harder

  • Title: Honour Beat
  • Written by: Tara Beagan
  • Director: Michelle Thrush
  • Actors:  Monique Mojica, Tracey Nepinak and Paula-Jean Prudat 
  • Venue: Theatre Calgary
  • City: Calgary
  • Year: 2018

rating

Honour Beat, the opening show of Theatre Calgary’s first season programmed by new artistic director Stafford Arima, feels like a declaration. Arima has selected a world premiere of a new work by an Indigenous playwright from Calgary with a mostly female and all Indigenous cast and director, and a largely Indigenous and almost exclusively diverse creative team. There is certainly a message here. But this is more than a statement; Honour Beat is an important work of art.

Playwright Tara Beagan’s first work for Theatre Calgary begins with a bedside vigil for a dying mother. Her elder daughter Anna Rae (Monique Mojica) rushes into the Toronto hospital room, back from a Sundance ceremony in South Dakota, to find little sister Rae Anna (Tracey Nepinak), who has made the trip from Vancouver, already there, and disapproving.

Something is off, though. Why does their dying mother (Paula-Jean Prudat), lying in the hospital bed, appear so much younger than her two daughters?

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There are many surprises that unfold during Honour Beat and I am reluctant to reveal them. But the decision to cast a young actor as Mom is inspired. Mom is an old woman – this is never in question – but her spirit is young. As she prepares to cross over, that spirit communes with her two daughters, and it is so alive, so vital.

There is an authentic, if at times overstated, tension between the sisters. Anna Rae is all flowing and spiritual – from her wardrobe to her vocabulary to her career (running a yoga studio). Rae Anna, an uptight church-goer with a husband, two children – and a secret – spends a lot of time with her smartphone and dresses in the generic uniform of suburban assimilation. They couldn’t be more different. But what do they share?

The roots of this discord go beyond your run-of-the-mill domestic dramas that infiltrate all families. The backgrounds of the three women are revealed throughout – disturbing details mostly related to the men who fathered them.

Mom’s biological father was a residential school priest who raped her mother, then a student. As a young teenager, Mom fell in love with a boy at residential school, but the fate of that boy – Anna Rae’s father – is unclear. Rae Anna has a different father, but he too died young, and tragically.

Who is left to keep it together? Honour Beat celebrates – honours – women as the givers and sustainers of life.

There is one man in the play, who seems to represent the hope for a different narrative and role for men. Spanish (Bernard Starlight) is the nurse practitioner who has been attending to Mom and is also a love interest for Anna Rae. He is gentle and kind.

The action unfolds in the palliative care room, and in a few instances, just outside the hospital. This is where the production runs into trouble.

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There are moments where we are watching two scenes simultaneously – Anna Rae and Mom are in the hospital room while Rae Anna and Spanish are outside. The dialogue is interspersed between the two groupings, with two conversations going on at once. With tight, precision timing, this might work. But on the evening I saw it (the night after opening), it did not. It was confusing and distracting, a bit messy. I was uncomfortably aware of how difficult this was to pull off. And that watered down the power of these interactions.

Still, Prudat is terrific – luminous, really – as Mom. And the production uses technology to powerful effect, in particular with immersive projections of historical footage of the residential schools.

If it all sounds dark and gloomy, prepare yourself for some levity. The play is also funny, because these women are funny – although some of the jokes land more successfully than others.

Honour Beat was originally envisioned to run with no intermission. Instead, it unfolds over two acts with a freeze-frame before the break. The second act is much stronger than the first, but I think the experience would have been more powerful if the audience could remain immersed in that world, with a play that runs straight through. As it stands, though, it’s too long for that.

The ending is extraordinary. But from the very beginning, we understand there is something important happening with this production. Before the land acknowledgement, read by Arima in English, we heard recordings of Siksika, Kainai, Pikani, Tsuu T’ina and Stoney Nakoda welcome messages in their respective Indigenous languages. I received the translations later. Here’s one of them: “Hello, my name is Ninnaisipistoo [Owl Chief]. I am Kainai. Enjoy Blackfoot country. Enjoy life; it is very short.”

Even if I didn’t understand the words when I was hearing them, I understood how much the playing of those words means. Opening this season with Honour Beat might not have been a sure-fire way to sell tickets – although you should see it, if you can. But the selection of this play is a meaningful one, full of intent, and should be applauded.

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