SALT BABY IS her name.
She’s Mohawk and Tuscarora from the Six Nations reserve in Ontario, but “doesn’t look it,” people keep saying.
From the time she was a light-skinned girl up through young womanhood, others don’t quite know how to classify her.
In the eponymous play now at the Belfry Theatre in Victoria, we get to spend time getting to know Salt Baby (Dakota Ray Hebert).
It’s a bumpy, laughter-leavened ride, thanks to the agile cast, crew and playwright Falen Johnson, who is also from the Six Nations territory.
She brings us inside Salt Baby’s family and into her heart.
We sit in a bar with her date, a guy nicknamed Alligator (Nathan Howe); after some provocative conversation, he becomes her boyfriend.
We go to his place for more circling and wrangling.
Then it’s time for her to introduce her beau to her dad, and for beau to bring his sweetie home to meet his folks.
Much awkwardness ensues, involving a deer and a hefty bottle of white wine.
I spoke with the playwright on the phone Friday when she was home in Toronto, eagerly awaiting the NBA playoff game between her beloved Raptors and the Washington Wizards.
The Raptors took it 102-92, to go on to meet the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday.
Johnson described her early playwriting process: “I didn’t know what I was doing,” she said. “I just started.”
She got encouragement from dramaturg Yvette Nolan, who told Johnson to hold on: “You just have to keep writing and we’ll figure it out.”
Salt Baby does, in a way.
She considers having her DNA tested, amidst conflicting reactions from family and boyfriend.
That’s the driver of the story, while other questions tug at her.
Can and should Salt Baby dilute her blood by marrying a white guy and having children with him?
Serious stuff, but Johnson, who also cohosts the “Secret Life of Canada” podcast, is a brilliantly comedic writer.
The scenes with Alligator and with the parents are funny, on point and truly comic relief.
“I know there’s a bit of a stigma out there in the world about First Nations theater being hard and heavy and difficult,” she has said.
“What I wanted to do with this piece was put a mixed audience in the room and say, ‘We’re all Canada now. We’re all here. No one’s getting on a boat and going back home.’ ”
On opening night, Songhees Nation elder Clarence Dick offered a traditional welcoming ceremony, saying, “We are all one circle of people.”
Another elder appears in “Salt Baby,” radiant in white cowboy hat, pressed shirt, jeans and boots.
He’s the grandfather, to me a loving observer and spirit guide.
His nimbleness dazzles: Colin Dingwall portrays not only the grandfather who silently reappears and disappears; he also shows up as Alligator’s tipsy mother, as a psychic with an electric crystal ball and as a wanna-be First Nations clerk at a big-box store.
Toward the summit of Salt Baby’s path, she steps into her power, into the light of knowing who she is.
The DNA test has something to do with it, but something deeper is going on.
Test results “don’t necessarily tell you who you are,” said Johnson. That comes through family, “however family is for you.”
“Salt Baby” stays at the Belfry Theatre, 1291 Gladstone Ave. in Victoria’s Fernwood neighborhood, through May 13.
Tickets start at $20, with discounts for students, military, seniors and groups.
Call 250-385-6815 or see belfry.bc.ca.
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a freelance journalist and former PDN features editor, lives in Port Townsend.
Her column appears in the PDN the first and third Wednesday every month. Her next column will be May 16.
Reach her at [email protected]