Review: The Chemical Valley Project (Theatre Passe Muraille/Broadleaf Theatre)

Environmental issues and the legacy of colonialism are at the core of a new play in Toronto

Broadleaf Theatre’s The Chemical Valley Project, currently playing at Theatre Passe Muraille, takes its name from a small region in Sarnia, Ontario where the Aamjiwnaang First Nations reserve sits smothered by one of Canada’s largest petrochemical corridors. This innovative and spellbinding work of documentary theatre, created by Kevin Matthew Wong and Julia Howman, sheds light on the toxic environment in which this community must live.

You can tell immediately that Kevin Matthew Wong is intensely invested in his subject. His eagerness to share knowledge is palpable and exhilarating. Before my guest and I had even removed our coats, he introduced himself and invited us up on stage with him—looking at photographs, watching videos, surveying a collection of artifacts related to his research—to bear witness. Particularly endearing to me was that he pointed out the on-stage desk as his own, dragged from his home and put into service for the telling of this story.

Wong introduces us to siblings Lindsay Beze Gray and Vanessa Gray, members of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, who have dedicated themselves to the protection of their community’s land, air and water. With admiration and affection, he pays tribute to their inspiration and guidance during the research and creation of this production. The show features plenty of shocking statistics, but Wong allows the personal experience of these fierce advocates to ground the facts by providing an intimate, comprehensible context.

Julia Howman’s production design and projections are hypnotic and persuasive. With tiny models and some white sheets stretched, folded and pulled through the air, the footage and graphics that support Wong’s points become dynamic and immersive. As simple as these effects seem, to achieve this smooth and spontaneous feel requires masterful precision. I was thoroughly enchanted by the visuals and can appreciate the impressive technical accomplishment.

The environmental concerns at the core of The Chemical Valley Project are supported by a thoughtfully curated selection of thematically relevant topics: colonization and the subjugation of Native culture, the demonization of disruptive forms of activism, a brief yet insightful explanation of two-spirit identity and what differentiates it from queer, trans and non-binary identities. 

This show also contains the most compelling land acknowledgement I’ve yet heard during a theatre piece. These can be an awkward. More often than not, they feel uncomfortably like tokenism as theatre makers dutifully stumble through a script before their show begins. Because it relates directly to the content, Wong is afforded the opportunity to integrate it naturally into his performance. His dramatic placement is nothing short of inspired and his delivery sounds refreshingly sincere rather than obligatory.

One of the most moving moments for me was his retelling of a Native story about a hummingbird trying to save his home from a devastating fire. As the other animals scornfully dismissed this small creature’s valiant though seemingly futile effort, I recognized my own struggle with the state of the world and activism. I often feel small, ignorant and overwhelmed. This incredibly moving fable acknowledges that burden of discouragement and shows that inaction isn’t the solution. All steps towards a goal, no matter how tiny, are valuable.

The Chemical Valley Project is an enlightening and encouraging experience you shouldn’t miss. For information about the Aamjiwnaang community, access to resources, and to learn how to stand with them, please visit Aamjiwnaangsolidarity.org.

Details:

  • The Chemical Valley Project runs until April 20, 2019 at Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace (16 Ryerson Avenue)
  • Shows run Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30pm, with Sunday matinees at 2:00pm
  • Tickets are PWYC, $15 to $45
  • Tickets can be purchased online or by phone 416 504 7529. 

Photo of Kevin Matthew Wong by Dahlia Katz.

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