The Chemical Valley Project is urgent and passionate documentary theatre


THE CHEMICAL VALLEY PROJECT by Kevin Matthew Wong and Julia Howman (Broadleaf Theatre/TPM). At Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace (16 Ryerson). Runs to Apr 20. $15-$45. See listing. Rating: NNNN

When writer/performer Kevin Matthew Wong heard about the First Nations drinking water advisory he went online to learn more. His research led him to Sarnia, Ontario and activist siblings Vanessa Gray and Lindsay Beze Gray. Then he created The Chemical Valley Project, a fascinating and passionate documentary theatre piece.

To foster inclusivity, the work is presented as a relaxed production. The unassuming Wong greets audience members as they enter the theatre, casually chatting with them to gauge their familiarity with the topic. Before this solo show officially starts, he invites a few people onstage to look at photos from his research. In conversation, Wong comes across more like that cool civics professor whose class you adored than an actor about to present a play. But once he begins, it becomes clear that this is much more than a lecture.

The production employs an engrossing mix of Wongs storytelling and inventive photo and video projections by Julia Howman (also co-creator of the piece) to reveal the environmental destruction inflicted by factories in The Chemical Valley. It also raises awareness of the catastrophic health crisis on reserves, particularly the Aamjiwnaang First Nations Reserve, where the Gray siblings grew up. The script incorporates dire statistics as well as poetic descriptions of the region.

Wong is a first-generation Canadian whose family emigrated from Hong Kong, and he very clearly addresses his trepidation of appropriating the story of another culture. He avoids this in part by tying what he learns to his own life, explaining that an aging pipeline runs from Sarnia to Montreal passing beneath 14 Indigenous communities and within blocks of the Scarborough neighbourhood of his childhood.

Although Wong tries to pack too much into the 70-minute show, including abundant conversations and a trip to Burnaby, BC, this doesnt detract from how engaging the piece is to watch. And its not all grim. The Grays (who get billing as part of the creative team and are his virtual co-stars by means of video and voice-over) embrace Wong and his idea to make their experiences the heart of his production. And audience members leave armed with ways to get involved.

In the Toronto theatre community it has become customary to recite a land acknowledgement before a play begins. Here, Wong saves it until the end. With the play as the preamble, the acknowledgement feels like more than just an honorary gesture.




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