By Sheila Martindale
Monday Magazine contributor
Identity crises are not unusual. There are migrants and refugees, with a foot in each of two camps, not really belonging to either. There are foreign-service workers, moving around the globe and never feeling fully comfortable anywhere.
In Salt Baby, the new show at The Belfry Theatre, we have a young aboriginal woman who appears white (hence the ‘salt’) and yet clings to her native heritage, wishing she were browner. Her relationship with a white man is influenced by the search for her real identity, and her foray into Internet dating, which specifies ethnic origins, turns out to be unsatisfying, if not disastrous.
Dakota Ray Herbert captures the spirit of this feisty young woman in all her different moods. We applaud her sense of humour and are delighted by her charm. But we do get a little weary of her obsession, as does her live-in partner, who goes by the odd name of Alligator. Nathan Howe is well cast as this likeable character. The interesting role of Salt Baby’s father is undertaken by Timothy Hill, who does the jokester rather well.
I suppose the gold star for versatility goes to Colin Dingwall, who plays the deceased grandfather, as well as a variety of other oddball characters, each one more bizarre than the last and portrayed totally over the top. He also gets the prize for being a quick-change artist.
Apart from the real muddle of who is who, since no one is really addressed by name on stage, and the programme is not very much help, the fault of this play lies in the fact that it tries too hard. And it does not really make us care about the people it showcases. If we don’t identify with at least one person, we can’t get behind the action. Salt Baby herself is the most sympathetic character, but even she can be tiresome at times.
Having said that, Tamara Marie Kucheran deserves kudos for an interesting and functional set, with its Ikea-like furnishings. The actors spend a lot of time moving hollow boxes about, which makes for significant choreography. Some of the sound effects are overpowering, and I’m pretty sure they make a point.
Salt Baby is an addition to the opus of First Nations writing, aimed at highlighting the value and importance of Indigenous culture, and we need to recognize that. But playwright and director Falen Johnson could take a tip from Drew Hayden Taylor, a mixed Ojibway and Caucasian playwright and author, who mused in a Globe and Mail essay: “Fighting over status/non-status, Métis, skin colour etc., only increases the sense of dysfunction in our community.”