Falen Johnson doesn’t hold back when it comes to Gwaandak Theatre. “I love Gwaandak,” the Six Nations writer says straight out. “It’s a place where you know you’re immediately welcomed as an Indigenous playwright.”
Johnson’s play Two Indians is one of three plays featured in this year’s Indigenous Summer Play Readings by Gwaandak Theatre. The event takes place at The Old Fire Hall on June 20th at 7 p.m.
Now in its seventh season, the series features readings of works from Indigenous playwrights. According to Gwaandak’s co-founder and managing artistic director Patti Flather, the intent is to expose local audiences to Indigenous theatre that has never been performed in the region before. The other works being presented are Reeling and Bear in Stream, both by Alaskan-born Tlingit writer Frank Kaash Katasse.
Johnson, who grew up alternating in Ontario between a Six Nations reserve and the nearby city of Brantford, calls Two Indians a “love letter to my cousins.”
It’s about two Mohawk cousins reuniting in a Toronto alleyway after years apart. They watch the moon rise, trying to recreate a ceremony from their childhood on the reserve.
The play explores the conflict many Indigenous people feel about being in an urban setting. “The city has a way of swallowing you,” Johnson says. And it doesn’t matter if the city is Toronto or Whitehorse, she says; you are still separated from the extended family who shaped your identity.
Johnson’s involvement with the Indigenous Summer Play Readings dates back to 2014, when Gwaandak presented Salt Baby, Johnson’s comedy about modern Indigenous identity. Hugely popular, the play was mounted as a full production by Yukon Arts Centre last September.
The readings have led to other productions. The Hours That Remain by Keith Barker was first featured in the Summer Readings in 2012. Gwaandak later co-produced a Yukon and national tour of it. There are plans to tour Yvette Nolan’s The Unplugging, which was also part of the series.
The Indigenous Summer Play Readings are an integral part of Gwaandak, according to Flather.
“The readings are an important way for us to reach out to youth and new audiences as we promote our passion for theatre storytelling,” she says.
The readings also offer hands-on opportunities for actors and directors – who are both emerging and established – in an atmosphere that is positive and supportive.
There are two rehearsals prior to the public reading. This year’s directors are Christine Genier, Andrameda Hunter and Léa Roy. They were mentored by theatre veteran Mary Sloan, who helped them select the performers.
The actors are Leonard Linklater, Elyssia Sasaki, Charlene Abraham, Stormy Bradley, Rae Mombourquette and April Schultz.
Flather plans to tour the readings in at least one other Yukon community as part of Gwaandak’s commitment to reach rural audiences. In the past, the readings have been presented in Mayo and Teslin.
This summer Gwaandak will bring Katasse’s Reeling and Bear in Stream to Teslin. Reeling, which won a playwriting competition in Los Angeles, is about two Tlingit women who pay their respects to the deceased uncle who raised them. Bear in Stream focuses on an uncle who teaches his nephew to appreciate the resilience of salmon.
For audiences, the summer readings are a chance to discover new voices waiting to be heard.
Gwaandak Theatre’s Indigenous Summer Play Readings take place Tuesday, June 20, at 7 p.m. at The Old Fire Hall. For more information go to www.GwaandakTheatre.ca.