Surrender to the story of Rise, Red River

MMIWG2S reclaim sovereignty in Tara Beagan’s powerful play

Image provided

When Calgary-based playwright Tara Beagan was first approached by artistic director of Prairie Theatre Exchange (PTE), Thomas Morgan Jones, to write a play about climate change, she found herself struck by the image of a woman, alone and trawling a dried-up river.

“That [image] came to me so strong I knew that I did have the play in me,” Beagan said. 

Inspired by the community work of Drag the Red, and the interconnectedness of climate change caused displacement and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and Two-Spirited Peoples (MMIWG2S), Beagan started to craft the story of Rise, Red River

Rise, Red River is a brutally beautiful co-production between Article 11, PTE and Théâtre Cercle Molière. 

The story, performed in multiple languages, follows the character of She/Elle, portrayed by Tracey Nepinak, as she walks up and down the dried-up Red River, trawling hooks attached to her pack, repeating the stories of stolen people while she searches for her own story.

Followed by Ancestor, portrayed by Marsha Knight, Elle encounters All Other Women, portrayed by the Caleigh Crow, who, through telling their stories, help Elle find her own. 

Beagan was the playwright in residence at PTE in 2020, where she started writing about Treaty One despite not physically being in Winnipeg and found herself having “logged a lot of kilometres walking and walking,” much like Elle herself. The story revealed itself to her on these walks. 

“I was discovering it as Elle discovered it,” Beagan said. 

Beagan spoke about the importance of staying open during the creative process and the fluidity of it.

“I don’t always intellectually choose things, sometimes they just arrive and I go, ‘that’s right.’” 

Only once she finds herself stuck in the process does Beagan goes back to “do the math” of playwriting.

In the play, each of the women speak a different language. Elle speaks in English to All Other Women, who replies in French, and both of them innately understand the other. 

Ancestor watches on, somehow unable to directly interact with the other characters, and speaking Anishinaabemowin in voice over. Beagan herself is only fluent in English, yet when writing her second draft of the play she “started to feel like English was just too limiting.” 

Drawing from both the Franco-Manitoban community and the knowledge of cultures that existed on Treaty One territory before colonization, Beagan added French and Anishinaabemowin to the play. 

“We kind of needed those languages to come forward in order to, I think, really feel the music of the land,” she explained.

With multiple languages, video projections and an impressive set, Beagan celebrates the show as a huge display of collaboration.  

Andy Moro, the other half of Article 11 alongside Beagan, came up with the idea of using alleyway staging as a way to make the audience “feel accountable to each other and to the women onstage.” 

The alleyway staging emphasizes the set, almost making the structure itself a character of the show. The platform, Beagan revealed, is simultaneously a zoomed-in and zoomed-out topographical outline of the Red River, with the risers it is placed on emulating the bridges across Winnipeg. 

When designing the set, both Moro and Beagan had in mind the treatment of the physical remains and narratives of MMIWG2S within the justice systems. 

“The way that the justice system treats our stolen people is so inhumane, and we wanted to reclaim that,” Beagan said. 

“We wanted to say — here is a slab of the earth and on top of it we’re going to put powerful women who are taking back their narratives.”

Beagan hopes anyone watching the show will be able to “surrender to the telling” and come away asking “where does love live inside of them and how can we regard people that we don’t know with more love?”

Rise, Red River runs at Théâtre Cercle Molière on 340 Provencher Blvd until March 23. Tickets are available at  at multiple pay-what-you-can rates.