Theatre Aquarius launches its 49th season, with the local premiere of an original play, SALT BABY, by Falen Johnson; an indigenous woman from the Six Nations, just outside of Brantford. She has written an ambitious and semi-autobiographical work, about a young woman seeking to discover more about her cultural heritage and identity.
The play centres on a young Tuscarora and Mohawk woman, "Chic-heh Not-t'goh-threh", referred to through-out the play by the English words, "Salt Baby".
I immediately thought of Tracey Deer's 2020 film, BEANS, which told the story of another young first Nations woman, Tekehentahkhwa, nicknamed "Beans", who learns to insist on Settlers using her actual name, by the end of the film. It’s hard for us Settlers to learn the correct proper names of out First Nations neighbours, but I think that it is important that we make the attempt.
The character is superbly portrayed by Chanin Lee, and her soon-to-be boyfriend "Philip", (Aris Athanasopoulos), who in the first scene, are hooking up at a local bar and trying to explain themselves to each other; the normal kind of interaction typical on a first date.
Philip goes on about his background as a settler an Irish and Scottish descent, while she is not able to explain much about her heritage beyond the fact that she grew up on the reserve. "Just how native
are you?", he asks. Due to the Indian Act, which disenfranchised women from their own community; that's a very loaded question.
The dilemma is the fact that she is much paler, than the rest of her relatives, "people think that I am Portuguese", her boyfriend Philip thinks this is a blessing and a useful thing, but she is not quite so
An ancestry type DNA test, becomes the core conflict, that asks the question, "just who am I?" I think that most of us have asked ourselves that question, at some point.
Her father, played with quiet dignity by Jeremy Proulx, does not want to under any circumstances submit to a DNA test. " I know who I am already," I don't need a test to tell me that. He is proud of his heritage as a Tuscarora, he has always essentially lived in the same place, he has a good life of hunting, and family, and does not understand why Salt Baby wishes anything else.
Moving to the city, and trying to find something better, becomes Salt Baby's journey. The irony of course being that the farther she moves away from where she comes from, the harder it is for her to find self-acceptance. At its heart this play is about coming to terms with yourself, and whatever baggage we carry along behind us.
There was authenticity, in this very real dilemma between the old and the new, and that was what I found most compelling about this production. The play is definitely told from a female perspective, it was also very sexual, which I found refreshing in its honesty.
The actor that most impressed me in the show, was Nicole Joy - Fraser, who played about half a dozen roles with precision and quality. She literally transformed herself with each character that she portrayed, it was clear to me that this was a very experienced and talented actor, and she provided the key support that held the show together.
There is some wonderful comedy in this play, a fabulous "geek-out" session over STAR TREK, and some powerful and moving moments, in the end, about finding acceptance about our heritage.
There was also some beautiful choreography that linked the individual scenes, many of which were quite fragmentary, but each moment helped to fill in some of the details that eventually changes the perspective
of Salt Baby, so that in the end she becomes contented, and more like her father.
Aris Athanasopoulos, mined a great deal of the play's humour, and provided the essential conflict that spurs on Salt Baby. He also played an indigenous character, called Alligator, who Salt Baby meets on a dating site. After breaking up with Philip. The difference between the two men was quite specific, and beautifully realized.
While not part of the actual play, I was moved by the singing of Nathan Muir, who performed using a small drum, immediately before the performance on opening night. This music was very powerful and set
the tone for the rest of the evening. The recorded music of Tom Wilson, and Buffy Sainte-Marie also resonated
powerfully in the auditorium, at key points in the production.
SALT BABY, represents something much greater than the sum of its individual parts, and trust me, this is compelling theatre, and certainly deserves support and recognition by Hamilton audiences.
Like last season's production of THE HOURS THAT REMAIN by Keith Barker, this is an important new direction for the company. And I applaud Artistic Director Mary Frances Moore, for leading Theatre Aquarius to embrace the work of First Nation’s artists as a regular part of each season.
- Brian Morton
Aris Athanasopoulos (Alligator/Philip), Nicole Joy-Fraser (Grandfather/ Clara/ Doctor/ Psychic/ Cheryl/ Wanda/ Elder), Chanin Lee (Salt Baby), Jeremy Proulx (Dad/Terry).
Cole Alvis (Director), Amber Archbell (Assistant Stage Manager), Bonnie Beecher (Lighting Design), Luigi Borghesan (Production Manager), Kevin Bowers (Stage Manager), Phil Davis (Knowledge Keeper), Barbara Kaneratonni Diabo (Movement Consultant), Christopher-Elizabeth (Composer), Falen Johnson (Playwright), Sergey Kublanovskiy (Sound Design), Sean Mulcahy (Set Design and Costume), Tom Wilson (Composer).
By Falen Johnson
Directed by Cole Alvis
A Theatre Aquarius production,
At the Dofasco Centre For the Arts,
September 14 to October 1, 2022
Tickets: 905-522-7529 or theatreaquarius.org