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(Marina Stephenson Kerr plays Nellie McClung, on one side of an ethical split within the suffrage movement in Wendy Lill’s The Fighting Days)
By Alison Mayes
In the early 1980s, Wendy Lill was commissioned to write a play by Prairie Theatre Exchange and Actors’ Showcase, the forerunner of Manitoba Theatre for Young People.
Lill, a broadcaster who had written only one previous play, nearly drowned in archival research. But when she discovered “forgotten feminist” Francis Beynon and her falling out with Nellie McClung, she knew she had her story.
The result, The Fighting Days, was a landmark 1984 production for PTE because it told a local story. Its great success helped pave the way for other Canadian dramas. PTE revived and toured it in 1985, then remounted it in 1990.
Its first-ever production at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre opens tonight, directed by Robb Paterson.
Set in Winnipeg, The Fighting Days traces the events leading up to Manitoba women being the first in Canada to win the vote in 1916, and the ethical split within the suffrage movement provoked by the First World War.
It depicts McClung’s friendship with two journalist siblings who were her sisters in arms, Lillian “Lily” Beynon Thomas (Daria Puttaert) and the considerably younger Francis Beynon (Sarah Constible). The lone fictional character and sole male is Francis’s editor (Richard Clarkin).
Lill, who is still writing plays, is now in her early 60s and a longtime Nova Scotia resident. She served as an NDP Member of Parliament from 1997 to 2004.
Speaking from Dartmouth, N.S., she says she’s still a fighter, focusing these days on climate change and rights for the disabled. “Once an activist, always an activist,” she says.
The Ontario-bred Lill remembers being terrified about depicting McClung with feet of clay for Winnipeg audiences. “I remember thinking on opening night, ‘This person, Nellie McClung, is absolutely sacred here… and I’m really taking her on.’”
In the play, Francis, who is passionately antiwar, clashes with McClung over military conscription, and over McClung’s position that the vote should be withheld from “non-Empire” immigrant women during the war.
“(These characters) are Empire women — white, privileged, literate,” notes Lill. Their conflict resonated in the feminist and peace movements in the 1980s and is equally relevant now, Lill says.
“The thing about Francis Beynon that was so frustrating to everyone around her — and also so important — was that she never compromised. It’s a brave position to take.”
Radical individuals like Francis are in every movement for social change, and they’re important because their extreme vision challenges others to push forward, Lill says.
“They’re always drummed out. Francis Beynon passed right out of history. Nellie McClung has a statue on Parliament Hill.”
Francis was fired from the Grain Growers’ Guide in 1917 for her “dangerous” antiwar views. She left Winnipeg for New York, where her sister and brother-in-law had already fled. Though she is buried in Winnipeg’s Brookside Cemetery (she died the same year as McClung, 1951), her contribution to women’s rights is barely remembered.
Looking back on The Fighting Days, Lill recalls a gratifying moment. In 1985, PTE’s production was performed at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre. At a post-show reception, an elderly man who had been in the audience approached her. It was one of McClung’s four sons.
First, he told the playwright he was probably the baby with whom McClung is pregnant in a second-act scene.
“Then he said, ‘You were right about a lot of things.’ I can’t say how much that meant to me.”
Marina Stephenson Kerr has been playing powerful middle-aged women since she was 16.
“I was never Juliet,” says the sought-after local actor with the distinctive angular face, who seems bigger onstage than she does in person.
“I was always the larger-than-life character.”
Stephenson Kerr, 49, says she’s having the best year of her career. Recently seen as a butch letter carrier in Bingo! at Prairie Theatre Exchange, she is also the gym teacher on the TV series Todd and the Book of Pure Evil and will soon appear in Winnipeg Jewish Theatre’s Angels in America, to name only a few of her gigs.
Her latest big character is charismatic feminist Nellie McClung in The Fighting Days.
Stephenson Kerr, originally from Saskatchewan, has only lived in Winnipeg since 2001, when her husband Bill Kerr was hired as a theatre professor at the University of Manitoba.
She has done extensive research on McClung (1873-1951) and become a great admirer of the rights champion. She says the mother of five was a brilliant orator who was warm, caring and, contrary to popular belief, not “mannish.”
A rare recording of McClung giving a 1938 speech — recalling the Famous Five’s legal victory in 1929 — can be heard online in the CBC digital archives. In it, the sweet-voiced crusader pays tribute to all the unsung women who bravely furthered the cause but never got their names in the newspapers.
“You just want to weep, it’s so moving. I think about it all the time,” says the actor.
The 1914 women’s mock parliament at the Walker Theatre, in which McClung played the role of the patronizing premier, was a key example of how effectively she used satirical humour, Stephenson Kerr says.
“Emmeline Pankhurst and some of the suffragists in England were jailed for setting bombs and fires. These women used humour. I mean, how Canadian. How wonderful.”
Stephenson Kerr is thrilled with the period costumes for The Fighting Days, which span 1910-17 and include splendid hats. “It’s like we walked out of Downton Abbey (the current PBS TV series set in 1912-20),” she says.
She’s had special training just to learn how to position each piece of lavish headgear atop her wig.
“There’s one hat they call ‘the cake.’ It’s huge,” she says. “The wigs are like pastry — curls and curls and curls.”
This column first appeared on The Winnipeg Free Press on February 9, 2012.