Falen Johnson doesn’t know where the expression “salt baby” came from, but it’s a moniker the First Nations actor-turned-playwright acquired at birth.
“I don’t remember being called that when I was a kid, but I remember hearing stories that I was called that as a baby, because I was really white-looking. It may have just been an off-handed comment someone made that somehow stayed,” she suggests.
Johnson is the daughter of a Mohawk mother and a father from Cayuga/Tuscarora heritage. She grew up in southwestern Ontario, alternating between the reserve of the Six Nations of the Grand River and the nearby city of Brantford.
Even as a child, she was aware of looking different. One day when she was about four years old, she and her older sister got into a tiff with a playmate who lived next door, with insults hurled back and forth.
“The winning volley was my neighbour saying to my sister, ‘Well, at least my sister isn’t white.’ That just shut down the entire argument.”
A few years later, as a teenager in Brantford, she was sitting with a friend who didn’t know her background, when the friend suddenly unleashed a string of anti-First Nations epithets.
“I just sat there in silence. I didn’t tell him. I didn’t out myself, because it was so confusing and so hard. I didn’t know how to handle it,” Johnson says.
It wasn’t until she moved to Toronto to study acting at George Brown College that Johnson started to explore what she calls her “Indianness” or her “indigeneity” in a serious way.
“There are tons of indigenous and First Nations and aboriginal people in the city, but we’re dispersed and we’re harder to see, so in a context where I’m not necessarily surrounded by other indigenous people, I could stand a little firmer and felt like who I was,” she says.
In 2007, Johnson started writing a one-woman play based on her own experience as a “white-looking Indian.” She showed an early script to Yvette Nolan, then artistic director of Native Earth Performing Arts in Toronto, who agreed to provide dramaturgical support.
What eventually emerged was a four-character play called Salt Baby, about a First Nations woman in a big Canadian city who starts dating “a lovely white guy” whose nickname is Alligator.
“Through her relationship with him and her own questions about her upbringing and her heritage, she decides to take a DNA test to try and figure out how much First Nations blood she has,” Johnson explains.
But before taking her “blood quantum” test, she decides to explore other avenues to figure out who she is, as Johnson did in real life.
“It was fun researching it. I did a lot of genealogy research. I did some work with family historians on our bloodlines, going back as far as I could get. And I did a lot of research into DNA tests,” she says.
She even visited a psychic, as the title character does in the play.
“The scene that’s in the play is pretty much verbatim what happened. It’s pretty hard to keep a straight face through that scene, through that interaction with the psychic.”
Despite the serious questions Salt Baby addresses about the search for identity, the play has earned a reputation as a very funny piece of theatre.
“Humour is a thing that a lot of indigenous people use. We go for laughter, definitely. It is a coping mechanism, but also humour in my work is the way that I engage with people,” she says.
“A lot of my work is about education, and education can be a hard pill to swallow. For me, humour and teaching go hand in hand. Those things are incredibly powerful tools when used together.”
This summer saw the production of Johnson’s second play, Two Indians. She is now working on an “almost operatic” tale about the African American-Cherokee journalist who gained notoriety in the early 20th century under the pseudonym of Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance.
The latest production of her debut work will take place in Whitehorse next week.
“It’s like the little play that could, it just keeps going,” she says. “It surprises me that it’s still happening, but I think it’s because it has something to say that people are still reacting to it.”
Salt Baby will run from Wednesday to Friday, Sept. 28 to 30 at The Old Fire Hall. Curtain time is 7:30 p.m.