Friday, February 20, 2015

Salt Baby at Talking Stick

I always forget what an avalanche of Vancouver performance comes after PuSh: the Talking Stick Festival, which opened on Tuesday; Chutzpah!, which opened yesterday; the Coastal First Nations Dance Festival and the Vancouver International Dance Festival, both coming up at the beginning of March; and on it goes. And that's on top of all the regular subscription series and venue programming throughout the city. There's so much to see that one can forget one is supposed to have a day job.

Mercifully, mine allows me to scoot out like I did this afternoon to the Roundhouse to catch the final matinee performance of Falen Johnson's play Salt Baby, first seen in Toronto at Native Earth Performing Arts (NEPA) in 2009, and now in Vancouver as part of Talking Stick. Directed by former NEPA Artistic Managing Director and Unplugging author Yvette Nolan, Salt Baby tells the eponymous story of a contemporary Mohawk and Tuscarora woman from the Six Nations reserve in Ontario (Dakota Hebert). Though she has her status card, and though she remains deeply connected to her father (Curtis Peeteetuce) and the spirit of her dead grandfather (Colin Dingwall, excellent in a number of roles), Salt Baby, who can pass as white and who has lived for many years in the polyglot "big city" (presumably Toronto), feels anxious about her heritage, and in particular the exact mix of her Native blood. In part these feelings are exacerbated by Salt Baby's budding romantic relationship with, Al, a young white man (a winsome Nathan Howe) whose initially obtuse and naive and gradually more genuine questions about her family background prompt a crisis of identity in Salt Baby. On a visit home to see her father, Salt Baby begins asking questions about her genealogy that leads her on a quest--via conversations with family friends, a dubious online choose-your-own-adventure-style survey, an even more dubious psychic, and finally a community elder--to discover the truth about her ancestors. But it's the DNA test that Al suggests she take and that her father resists helping her with that looms as the real source of Salt Baby's ontological dilemma: if she takes it, she risks discovering that she is not who she thought she was; but, even more pertinently, she risks reducing her identity to the sum of her genes.

What elevates the will she or won't she plot question above a mere device to maintain narrative suspense is Johnson's recognition that paternity for Salt Baby--and Indigenous peoples more generally--is not just an existential cri de coeur or a mathematical abstraction; it has real-world and historically material consequences. Notwithstanding our twenty-first century rainbow celebration of cross-cultural relationships, the irony is that couples like Salt Baby and Al actually fulfill what was once a de facto government policy in this country: forced assimilation of Indigenous peoples through intermarriage (and see, in this regard, former deputy superintendent of Indian Affairs and celebrated Canadian poet Duncan Campbell Scott's "The Onandaga Madonna"). Indeed, Salt Baby's father, in querying his daughter's need to know, definitively, what tribes she descends from, notes that in the early part of the twentieth century several Indigenous peoples voluntary switched their tribal affiliations in order to keep dwindling band numbers up. (As an aside, I also want to point out that the first homecoming scene between Salt Baby and her father contains what I take to be an overt reference to George Ryga's The Ecstasy of Rita Joe; upon entering her father's house, Salt Baby kicks off her shoes, noting that walking on concrete in the city always makes her feet hurt. This is an echo of a line spoken by Rita Joe's sister in Ryga, that when Rita first came to Vancouver her feet hurt.)

What makes all of this so dramatically affecting is that Johnson skillfully grounds these larger cultural--and expressly gendered--questions in an honest, funny, and incredibly believable romance between Salt Baby and Al. Indeed, as blissfully ignorant as Al might at first seem (we cringe, during the first scene, when he asks Salt Baby to speak some Mohawk to him), we gradually come to understand that the results of the DNA test are not an issue for him, and, indeed, that he eventually comes to rue his suggestion that she take the test in the first place. A genetic map won't make Al love Salt Baby any more or any less. Whereas for Salt Baby, Al's whiteness, regardless of whether or not she goes through with the test, will always be an impediment--and for precisely the reasons noted above. The burden of reproductive futurity dooms Salt Baby and Al, and it says something that in the scene where this is revealed (as well as a later one, when, after having broken up, Salt Baby and Al reencounter each other at an old hangout following a disastrous date between Salt Baby and an Indigenous man) the mostly teenage audience audibly sighed.

While I feel that the play is about 10-15 minutes too long, I was gripped throughout. All of the actors are superb, and the production is deftly directed by Nolan, who inserts some notable elements of physical movement in between scenes, most memorably a seductive dance between Salt Baby and Al just before they have sex for the first time. (As another aside, I am pleased to see that Nolan's The Unplugging, which received its premiere at the Arts Club's Revue Stage in 2013--and which I write about here--is getting a remount in Toronto, in a co-production between NEPA and the Factory Theatre, later this March.) A shout out, as well, to the simple yet highly evocative set design by Norm Daschle and Johanna de Vries, which makes effective use of a series of wooden containers and a suspended bamboo frame upstage to conjure different spaces; for example, sheets hung from the frame and between which Salt Baby and Al snuggle post-coitally become a nifty top view of Al's bed. The sound design (by Devon Bonneau, who also did the lights) also features a funky mix of songs by Indigenous artists, including Jennifer Kreisberg, whose Road Forward collaborator, Marie Clements, I was sitting beside in the theatre.

The Talking Stick Festival continues through March 1, with plenty to see. Check out the offerings here.


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