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Theatre Reviews The Chemical Valley Project at Theatre Passe Muraille feels obsessed with its own creation

Co-creator and star Kevin Matthew Wong is seen in the Chemical Valley Project, now playing at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto.

Graham Isodor /Theatre Passe Muraille

  • The Chemical Valley Project
  • Co-created by: Kevin Matthew Wong and Julia Howman
  • Written and performed by: Kevin Matthew Wong
  • Company: Broadleaf Theatre
  • Venue: Theatre Passe Muraille
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to April 20

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The Chemical Valley Project, a new documentary play from Broadleaf Theatre now on at Theatre Passe Muraille, is like following one environmentally conscious man down an anxious late-night Google hole.

Writer and star Kevin Matthew Wong begins the solo show by saying he was actually searching for something else entirely online one day when he stumbled upon a YouTube video of extreme flaring in the area near Sarnia, Ont., known as the Chemical Valley – the largest concentration of chemical and petrochemical plants in Canada.

That frightening footage leads Wong to meet up with the pair of young activists who shot it, from the nearby Aamjiwnaang First Nation. Lindsay Beze Gray and Vanessa Gray (credited as dramaturges on the show) take him on a tour of the area by school bus – and he hears stories of children visiting hospitals unable to breathe and of buried asbestos seeping up through the ground into a nearby park. He learns some shocking statistics about the rate of miscarriage and stillbirth in the community.

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The Chemical Valley and its effects on local health and the environment, particularly in nearby Indigenous communities in a time of supposed reconciliation, is more than a meaty-enough subject for a 90-minute play.

Journalists have covered the story off and on for decades – and Gray herself, now 26, was in the news just last month after she was pushed to the ground during a climate-change rally attended by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after unfurling a Canadian flag with “No justice on stolen native land” written on it.

But Wong – whose play takes the form of an unwaveringly earnest first-person narrative interspersed with recorded video and audio – soon becomes specifically interested in Enbridge’s Line 9. That pipeline runs all the way from Sarnia to Montreal including, he learns, through his old neighbourhood in Scarborough, just a block away from the church he attended as a child and his favourite bubble tea spot.

Despite discovering this concrete connection to the Chemical Valley, Wong then spends some time questioning what gives him the right to tell a story about the Aamjiwnaang First Nation in the first place – which leads him to consult with an Indigenous professor at the University of Toronto. She tells him that because his family is originally from Hong Kong, “You’re from a colonized place, too.”

This is a revelation to Wong and he repeats the line several times – and, suddenly, it’s as if he’s clicked on the word “decolonization” as the play shifts its attention. The way he continues to segue hither and thither in his script is very influenced by contemporary podcasting (i.e. “I wanted to talk to more people about decolonizing …”), but the end product ends up feeling tangential and superficial.

Many artists are grappling with concerns about cultural appropriation these days – and, more broadly, how to create theatre and tell stories in the most ethical way possible, how to reckon with privilege and pass the mic as much as possible. It’s an important revolution in art-making that is leading to new approaches, deeper collaborations, theatre that doesn’t look or sound like it used to look and sound.

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The Chemical Valley Project is an example of how those impulses can lead a playwright astray, as well, into creating a show that ends up feeling obsessed with its own creation and too aloof from its subject matter.

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Wong’s conscientious politics end up being performed, rather than informing what he performs – which actually ends up making him seem self-absorbed rather than self-aware in the end. A “documentary theatre piece about environmental racism,” as Wong describes his project at one point, ends up being a play about one man’s personal journey toward understanding. I’m sure that’s not what was intended. There’s no director credited; the show needed an outside eye.

It looks great, though. The Chemical Valley Project’s production designer is named Julia Howman – and she is credited as a co-creator, for good reason. Her nifty visual touches include a small lamp that almost becomes a character unto itself (like the Pixar lamp, actually) – and cool projections that somehow always land perfectly on makeshift screens both big and small.

The tour that the Gray siblings take Wong on, for instance, is dramatized by placing a toy school bus in front of a moving background projected onto a tiny structure on a table; it’s like a glimpse into a magical miniature world. Howman’s design looks like low-budget Robert Lepage – a theatrical artist who, on the other side of the equation, has underconsidered ethics and overconsidered aesthetics in recent work. The right balance can be found.

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