Scientists have practically traced the human genome all the way back to our unicellular ancestors, but our pesky genes are still not above playing the occasional trick. Falen Johnson, for instance, was born on the Six Nations reserve in southern Ontario to parents of Mohawk and Tuscarora descent. Somewhere in the colonial past, however, European blood entered the family gene pool.
“I looked more like Shirley Temple than I did Pocahontas, I guess,” she explains with a laugh, in a telephone interview from Brantford, Ontario. “I had light, curly hair and fair skin.”
Johnson allows that, on the reserve, she was sometimes teased about her distinctive looks. A less confident person might have taken that hard, feeling that they didn’t fit in, but for the 31-year-old actor and playwright that wasn’t the case. “I know there’s this other side of me, but I’ve always just fully identified as First Nations, as Mohawk and Tuscarora,” she says. “That’s just who I am, so this idea of a split identity was never really part of the way that I felt about myself.”
The title character of Johnson’s play Salt Baby—which makes its Vancouver debut this week, as part of the Talking Stick Festival—isn’t quite so self-assured. The role, and the play, were definitely inspired by Johnson’s own experience, but both conflicts and comic elements have been exaggerated for theatrical impact.
“She’s trying to find out about who she is,” says the playwright. “She’s curious about her background, so the idea comes up to get her DNA tested. But then that poses the question of ‘What does that mean, exactly?’ In Indian country, we’re a little bit nervous about having our DNA tested and ending up in labs and not knowing what’s going to happen with that stuff.…but it’s also about ‘When we let ourselves be defined by those rules, what happens then?’ So that’s definitely a worry for Salt Baby; she doesn’t want to fall into that trap of letting science define her.”
Johnson was, at one point, interested in having her own DNA tested, but Salt Baby’s director, Yvette Nolan, counselled against it. “She said, ‘If you do that, then you’re going to have the answer. And no one wants to see you have the answer; people want to see you find the answer. People want to see the struggle.’ ”
Johnson did, however, consult a psychic for some past-life info, an experience now immortalized in her script. “It was primarily for research purposes,” she claims, with another laugh. “You couldn’t make it up, what went down there, so that scene’s pretty verbatim.” Other passages in the play are less naturalistic, with some, she explains, coming from dreams of her grandfather.
“He’ll give me advice—but he won’t give me all the answers, which I also thought was important to weave into this show,” she says. “There’s a saying, like, ‘You get the medicine you need.’ So I think Salt Baby’s journey is her working towards getting the medicine she needs. Sometimes that medicine is hard to take; sometimes it’s not a simple journey. You can gain things, you can lose things, you can stumble along the way, but it’s all a part of the medicine.”
Should potential viewers be tempted to see Salt Baby as a bitter pill, Johnson is quick to say that’s not the case.
“It’s funny!” she stresses. “I know there’s a bit of a stigma out there in the world about First Nations theatre being hard and heavy and difficult, but 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.’
“What I think runs through all my art is, ‘How can I use this opportunity to educate?’ ” she adds. “But also I want it to be funny, because I think funny opens the door.”
The Talking Stick Festival presents Salt Baby at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre from Wednesday to Friday (February 18 to 20).