Review: Kevin Matthew Wong's ‘The Chemical Valley Project’

Chemical valley (use this one).jpg
  • Joe Szekeres, Chief Toronto Critic

This opening night was referred to as a Relaxed performance. This is a new term for me but we were told beforehand that some lights would remain up if people needed to use the bathroom or stand and stretch. This term is new for me as I am so used to sitting still when the houselights come down. 

From what I could tell, nobody dared to stand up, stretch or move. When Kevin Wong announced that every Monday at 12:30 pm that an alarm bell is rung in Chemical Valley, a hush enveloped this crowd. Chilling statistic indeed but this hook made me pay attention.

Near the conclusion of this engrossing documentary theatre production, Mr. Wong shared how the development of ‘The Chemical Valley Project’ for him was “a journey of knowledge and understanding and the difference between the two of these words.”

It was for me as well and I’m glad that I had this opportunity to journey with him for 70 minutes and share in his knowledge and understanding of an important social justice issue. He delivers a compelling performance of an exceptional story teller who obviously cares a great deal about the atrocities of what’s happening in Chemical Valley around Sarnia, Ontario.

The Aamjiwnaang First Nations reserve and 900 residents are surrounded by Chemical Valley, one of Canada’s largest petrochemical corridors. Vanessa Gray and Lindsay Beze Gray are vocally and vehemently committed in their activism against the pollution that threatens this First Nations’ health and safety.  Mr. Wong and Julia Howman document the siblings’ advocacy as land defenders and water protectors.  During the performance, Kevin provided some alarming statistics and facts from The Toxic Tour that made me along with several other audience members gasp in horrific recognition. Using visual projections, interviews, statistical data and simple model reconstruction with the pop here and there of humour, Mr. Wong worked his way into my collective conscience in recognizing what is my responsibility as a Canadian citizen in dealing with this crisis.

And it’s all performed in a set design for ease of transition and fluidity of props and lights. Upon entering the Backspace, Mr. Wong is there to greet audience members. There is a work station centre stage with a desk lamp and well-worn stool with open lap top computer which faces the audience. Mr. Wong is an affable narrator with a pleasing stage voice that made me warm up to him quickly as I wanted to hear what he wanted to share with us.

Wong carefully uses every inch of the stage and even moves into the audience to tell his story. Every prop he uses is choreographed carefully into his presentation. He uses a drop cloth periodically for part of the visual projections. Two minor quibbles, and these are only minute mind you, are the fact that sometimes the video sound emanating from his lap top computer was low and I was unable to hear part of the conversation. As performances continue, Mr. Wong should be able to ensure the drop cloth he holds is straight and not shifted to one side.

One highly effective and haunting moment for me was Wong’s silhouette against the video projection against the brick wall. While we see great smoke emanating from the clouds, he twists and contorts his body effectively which movingly reminded me of the horrors that the Aamjiwnaang daily endure as their lives have been damaged by the environmental pollution in Chemical Valley.

‘The Chemical Valley Project’ continues to April 20 in the Backspace Theatre at Passe Muraille, 16 Ryerson Avenue, Toronto. For tickets, call the Box Office at 416-504-7529 or visit www.passemuraille.ca for further information.

Running time is 70 minutes with no intermission.

Projections Operator: Julia Howman; Dramaturgy and Advisement: Vanessa Gray and Lindsay Beze Gray; Lighting Design by John Cabanela and Julia Howman; Original Composition by Minha Lee with contributions from Michael Henley; Stage Management: Heather Bellingham; Audio Description Consultant: Alex Bulmer.

Photo of Kevin Matthew Wong by Graham Isador.