Honour Beat Takes a While to Find its Rhythm, but Provides a Rewarding Journey
Honour Beat has the foundation of a compelling story of family and the impact of blood memory. And while it takes a fair bit of time to reach its potential, the journey is ultimately rewarding.
The first third of the play was a little clunky — dialogue felt stilted, some of the jokes were pedestrian at best. And the unnecessary inclusion of technology in a story about people actually served to disengage the audience from the message –– as a “video call” that was projected on a mesh screen not only obscured the image but also was not in sync with the action on the stage. At that point in the production, the video was superfluous –– and if you’re going to use something like that, then you need to ensure it’s timed perfectly. This wasn’t.
There were a few other elements of the play that unnecessarily threw any semblance of subtlety out the window. The sisters, played by Andrea Menard and Tracey Nepinak respectively, are established as polar opposites. To reinforce this dichotomy, Nepinak’s sister is younger, but more adapted to the “modern” world: she lives in Vancouver, she is married into a Christian household, and her method of communication with her mother comes through technology. Conversely, Menard’s sister is older, more traditional in nature, owns a yoga studio in Toronto, embraces traditional ceremony and medicine, and communes with her mother’s spirit.
Did we mention that their names are Rae-Anna and Anna-Rae?
Other hammer-over-the-head moments include a couple of unnecessary but oh-so-obvious digs at Ontario’s Conservative government and a mantra-like repetition of the mother’s statement about her pride in the strength of her daughters.
These are easy gets and simply put in place to get the audience to cheer. And that’s a disservice to the depth that this play eventually displays.
Where Honour Beat is strongest is in the exploration of the impact of systemic racism and colonialism on the indigenous population. It’s strongest in delving into the blood memory created by residential schools and how, years after their abolition, the impact of these institutions continues to manifest in generation after generation of people. And it’s strongest when examining a mother’s love for her daughters and her appreciation of their individual strengths and character. It’s strongest when a mother’s dying efforts bring together two halves to appreciate their exponential strength as a whole.
Tai Grauman is wonderful in the role of “Mom”. She is separated from her earthly body early in the production and the casting of a younger woman in the role of an elderly person is inspired. We are granted an insight into the youthful exuberance, passion, and wit of the mother, who lies in a hospital bed in the final stages of cancer. Her expression of pain, fear, and desperation when reliving her flight from a residential school is by far the highlight of the production. And the other three principals all do a remarkable job of conveying the sense of an invalid woman in a bed, even after Grauman has physically left that state. It’s an inspired bit of directing that affords the audience a window into both the mother’s past and present.
Menard and Nepinak take a bit to hit their rhythm, but in the more emotionally invested final two thirds of the play, they develop a sisterly interaction (in both the positive and negative sense of the relationship) that helps to propel the production to its conclusion. And Menard’s singing is a highlight of the production.
Finally, Nicholas Nahwegahbow’s nurse-practitioner character, nicknamed Spanish, slowly grows into an emotional anchor for the production. Early on, he’s a bit stiff in delivery, but ends up being a compassionate-but-reserved foil off of which the more emotional characters can play.
The set design has its high and low points. Splitting the stage between a hospital room and a cedar tree works well for the production. It’s a fairly sparse set design that would have worked much better without the unnecessary “neral Hospital” neon sign dominating the upper left-hand-side of the stage (the “Ge” was intentionally missing/obscured). It makes no sense as to why this would be facing internally. It’s a minor distraction, but one that could have been avoided.
In the end, Honour Beat is a study of life, observed at the time of death. It’s an examination of the events, moments, and experiences in our lives that add up to who we are and how we approach life. And, ultimately, during a time of sorrow, it’s a celebration of love, womanhood, and family.
Honour Beat takes a bit of time to find its rhythm –– and there are a few far-too-obvious notes –– but ultimately, it reaches a satisfying conclusion.