I did a preview post awhile back about Salt Baby which kicked off the Globe Theatre’s 2015 Shumiatcher Sandbox Series on Jan. 22. Last night I had an opportunity to see the production, and have no qualms about recommending that if you’re in the mood for some theatre this weekend it’s definitely worth seeing. There’s two more shows in the run tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m., and tickets can be obtained at the Globe box office.
Written by Six Nations playwright Falen Johnson and directed by Yvette Nolan, the play is nominally set in southern Ontario. But the issues and life experiences that it addresses have relevance for every region of the country where First Nations and European settler communities co-exist.
As the play opens, the title character (a young woman of mixed Indigenous and European ancestry played by Saskatchewan artist Dakota Hebert) is about to embark on a romance with a young man named Philip (Nathan Howe) in a large unnamed city.
That’s a photo of the couple above during happier times. Because, as the play unfolds, the broader reality of racism and colonialism that has long-scarred relations between First Nations/Metis people and dominant society inevitably impact on the couple. Compounding matters is the confusion that Salt Baby feels about her mixed ancestry.
While she has strong roots in her home First Nation, as exemplified by the visits she makes on a regular basis to see her father (Curtis Peeteetuce) and the ongoing interaction she has with her deceased grandfather (Colin Dingwell) who appears as a ghost clad in western garb to comment ironically on the action and offer advice, she also, by virtue of her fair skin, can move easily in non-Indigenous circles.
When they meet, Philip characterizes her ability to “pass” as an advantage as it permits her to define herself on her terms depending on whether she wishes to accentuate the Mohawk or European side of her ancestry. But as the play unfolds it quickly becomes obvious that the reality for Hebert’s character is much more complicated.
Really, she’s caught in a limbo between the two cultures — with people on both sides of the ethnic divide trying to fit her into a box based on stereotypes they hold of those on the other side of the divide. That inspires an identity crisis for Salt Baby, and she pursues several different avenues from new age palm reading to pseudo native shamanism to DNA testing to nail down her ancestry and find peace within herself.
There’s no shortage of intense scenes that illustrate the harsh reality of racism and colonialism in Canada. But as played by Hebert, Salt Baby is a strong young woman, and with the support she receives from her father and grandfather, and to a lesser extent Philip, she never allows the despair and confusion she sometimes feels to get the better of her (outside of one scene where she cocoons on a couch in her bathrobe after a split with Philip).
As well, Johnson’s script is loaded with humour where characters poke fun at themselves and the stereotypes and misconceptions that sometimes bedevil relations between First Nations and settler communities in our society — not to mention parents and children, and men and women in general.
Throw in a soundtrack composed of music by Indigenous artists such as Chris Derkson, Robbie Robertson, A Tribe Called Red and Kristi Lane Sinclair, and a sparse but evocative set by Norm Daschle and Johanna de Vries that serves variously as a big city nightclub, an urban apartment, a house in the Six Nations community, and a forest, and it all adds up to an entertaining and thought-provoking evening of theatre.