Meet Sandi Johnson: ‘People Like Us’ playwright

Sandi Johnson credit Peter Southam/Diana Hayes
Sandi Johnson credit Diana Hayes

As Remembrance Day approaches, the Firehall that brings to light the hidden impact of war on returning veterans and their families with the moving and poetic new play People Like Us. We’re very proud to be premiering this important new Canadian play about a Gulf War veteran and his fiercely courageous wife, and would like to introduce you to the woman behind it –  talented Salt Spring writer Sandi Johnson. Sandi is interested in imaginary work that is socially relevant. She has written two books – ‘The Comfort of Angels’ a fictional work based on her experience of working with Ojibwa Indians in northwestern Ontario and a poetry and line drawing volume ‘The Wonderful Naked Man’, both published by Beach Holme. Nicola Cavendish read People Like Us and was so taken with Sandi’s beautifully poetic writing that she recommended Donna Spencer, the Firehall’s Artistic Producer take a look at the play.

We took a moment in between rehearsals to chat with Sandi about the inspiration for writing People Like Us.

Where did you get the idea or inspiration to write People Like Us?

‘People Like Us’ was commissioned by Maggie Schubart  when she  was in her nineties.  She had a wish list and on that list was a play that would help the cause of peace.  Maggie was a social activist who came to Salt Spring with her family during the Vietnam War. She believed that change often happened through arts and culture. The story idea came from Jan Slakov, a friend of  Maggie’s who knew a Canadian military policeman and his wife in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.


What was it about this particular story that captivated you?

Jan Slakov and Sandi Johnson at the Firehall.
Jan Slakov and Sandi Johnson at the Firehall.

I didn’t meet this couple and the Kate Rourke character is my creation. However, I  knew from Jan Slakov that this couple had stayed together after he came home sick from the Gulf.  I knew that she’d cared for him and had also advocated for veterans.  They  suffered loss of health, intimacy, financial security, and especially loss of faith in the military. I was interested in the human qualities that kept them together.


In your research into the Gulf War and Canada’s involvement in it, what did you discover that astonished or shocked you?

There was plenty of material that disturbed me.  It was an Arab conflict over oil and it could have remained an Arab conflict.  I was disturbed by the flagrant destruction of Iraq, the use of depleted uranium,  and especially by the murder of surrendering Iraqis and hundreds of innocent civilians on Road to Basra, also known as The Highway of Death.


Why did decide to tell the story from Gerry’s wife’s perspective?

Gerry’s health was in a downward spiral and his would have been an interior perspective. There was much more opportunity for action in telling it from Kate’s story.  She stayed in the time as it was running out, attempting  to keep the family together. She rebelled against the poverty and the rules. She tried to save her sensual grace through belly dance.

People_Like_Us_Sarah Louise Turner credit Emily Cooper
Sarah Louise Turner as Kate Rourke in People Like Us


Did you talk to many veterans while researching the piece? Are there any particular stories that stand out?

I didn’t talk to many veterans, but I found in Hansard veterans’ submissions to Veterans Affairs Committees.  Many times, I read  the story of sick veterans asking for help. I found letters, for example to Canadian Blood Services where veterans express concern regarding depleted uranium toxicity.

I heard from a Gulf War Vet by email one day  because he’d read online that I’d done a script based on the 1991 Gulf War. I suggested we meet for coffee, and then he told me he was writing from Montreal.  I said that Montreal was a long way to go for coffee. I’ve been in touch with another vet who’s very ill. She’s so grateful that someone’s told their story. The Gulf War vets have felt forgotten.


What message would you like audiences to take away from the show?

I’d like them to walk out of the theatre with a very brave Kate Rourke right beside them.


People Like Us previews this Saturday Nov 2, 8pm; Sunday Nov 3, 2pm; Tuesday Nov 5, 8pm; Wednesday Nov 6, 1pm (PWYC) and runs til Nov 16. Previews are all half price ($15). Click here or call 604-689-0926 to buy tickets. There will be a special panel discussion looking at the impact of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder on Nov 10 following the 2pm matinee.


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