The Belfry’s Ministry of Grace brings a survivor and grandmother’s story to the stage.
INDIGENOUS PLAYWRIGHT, ACTOR AND DIRECTOR Tara Beagan, from the Nlaka’pamux First Nation, would like to tell you a story. It’s a story that happened to her maternal grandmother in the 1950s. Let’s call her Mary. Although Beagan’s grandmother was reluctant to talk about it, this story remained one of the playwright’s favourites.
In 1950, Mary went down to California to work as a cotton picker. She felt the need to get away from her home community, as her children had been forced into a residential school and she was grieving their loss. She had attended the same residential school herself, and knew too well what her daughters were going through.
Playwright Tara Beagan
The play opens with Mary having been terminated as a harvest hand on the cotton plantation for defending herself from the plantation owner’s sexual advances. Detained in a chain-locked barn, Mary and her practice of reading aloud to illiterate labourers comes to the attention of a travelling evangelist. Here was a Native Indian (in the American terminology) who could read! The evangelist, an outcast from the Catholic church, hires Mary to read scripture in his travelling tent revival and renames her Grace. She spends some time on the road in this way—as an “attraction” called “Tamed Heathen”—before moving back to Canada and her children.
Fast forward many decades later, and grand-daughter Tara Beagan has chosen to turn her grandmother’s story into a play, titled Ministry of Grace, that is premiering in an all-Indigenous production at the Belfry Theatre from February 4 to March 1 (Focus is a proud sponsor).
I had the chance to speak with Beagan on the phone from her home in Calgary about the play and the production she will be directing here.
After telling me her grandmother’s story, I asked if there are other levels of inspiration for this play, beyond the remarkable family history. She replied, “I love the writing of John Steinbeck and that era of the mid-1900s, with the Wild West being so-called ‘tamed’ and with this beautiful and vast landscape for storytelling. This play is an ode to my inner Steinbeck.”
I was curious about the role of the evangelist, named Brother Cain, in the play. How is he portrayed, I wondered? Beagan said, “He is a sympathetic antagonist, I think, because his human torment is very present. He is representative of my own journey being raised in the Catholic faith. My Irish father rejected the church when I was in grade four. In the play, Brother Cain (played by Stafford Perry) has been excommunicated by the church, and is haunted by this loss. He resents Mary Grace’s easy relationship with God, and tries to become his own God.”
Another key figure in the play is Clem, described by Beagan as a “Cree colossus,” who works for Brother Cain as a roadie and develops a love interest in Mary Grace. This role features Sheldon Elter who impressed audiences in last year’s Belfry production of Bears.
Ministry of Grace is just the most recent of over a dozen plays Beagan has written and most often directed as well. Of Ministry’s development, she said, “I workshopped the play in Toronto with my theatre company Article 11. We worked at Historical Fort York outdoors with [Indigenous playwright] Daniel David Moses as our dramaturg. I wanted the sense of the travelling revival show with the audience under a tent, so working outside at the Fort was ideal.”
I asked Beagan if this kind of design will be part of the Belfry production and she said, “When I visited the Belfry, which is such a beautiful space and of course a former church, I really saw that the audience at the Belfry feels like the space is theirs. We want to create the sense of the tent by draping canvas, possibly illuminating the lovely ceiling, bringing in old truck parts, that kind of thing. I want the audience to feel transported to a different time.”
Beagan often collaborates on her productions with her life partner, set designer Andy Moro. When I asked about their working process together, she answered, “There is a culture of ‘no’ in theatre, where requests are too often denied. My experience with Andy is that he will say ‘yes.’ Directing became possible with Andy as an ally. I am able to direct in a way that releases the design to him, so I can focus on the actors’ journey.”
Beagan and I also chatted together about our backgrounds, finding out that we had both lived in Toronto for many years, before moving back out west, she to Calgary and me to Victoria. I told her about my own Catholic upbringing and how I call myself a “recovering Catholic,” which earned a knowing chuckle from Beagan. I also felt moved to tell her about my experience of growing up in Regina under a kind of apartheid, with the city to this day divided between the mostly white settlers in the south and the Indigenous community in the north, divided by the CN Railway tracks. She listened to me empathetically, as I tried to articulate a bit of my own journey of reconciliation, a coming to terms with a past in which Indigenous people were erased, made absent from my life.
So what does Beagan hope the largely white settler audience will take away from seeing Ministry of Grace? Her response was thoughtful: “There is still a real lack of empathy toward Indigenous people in Canada. There is no hope for reconciliation if we can’t feel for one another. We [Indigenous theatre artists] are just starting to get to see our own stories on stage, supported by settler people. We need to expand our empathy, and theatre can do that. Indigenous theatre includes all of us.”
Amen to that.
Monica looks forward to another busy year with plenty of theatregoing along the way.