THE AAMJIWNAANG WATER GATHERING PT 1
I am bright-eyed and 18,
a ScarMarkham-raised CBC with acne scars, a scruffy head of hair, jumbled ideas,
and an unusually low voice for a small Asian boy.
In senior year I’m the kid staying late after school, a devoted member of the drama room and the environmental club. I alternate between rehearsals for school plays and tending to compost worms; I spend some days in character and others coordinating waste reduction campaigns. I’m passionate, too opinionated, and cautiously optimistic about the future.
In 2012, I enter theatre school to study acting, a path that confounds my family.
In many respects, I’m embarking into the unknown.
I’m the sole “artist” in my immediate family, the sole yellow face in my cohort of acting peers.
I take my first leap into an industry known for precarious labour and big personalities.
In the first few weeks, my world begins to shift.
Fundamental parts of myself become strange and foreign.
“Good actors are open, neutral canvases.”
My instructors tear into my every peculiarity, trauma and tick like hawks.
I learn how to speak clearly, stand properly, walk correctly, move and breathe professionally. I am challenged to stop judging my own experiences in order to empathize with and enact the experiences of others.
Studying acting is no easy task. The criticism is abundant, multidirectional, unexpected and often unwelcome.
Week by week I grow in confidence, self-awareness, and voice.
The world is shifting beneath my feet and I am learning to shift with it.
THE AAMJIWNAANG WATER GATHERING PT 2
Somewhere between voice and movement class, Shakespeare and scene study, I feel something missing. While my artistic heart and mind flourishes, a part of me feels forgotten, unacknowledged and unfulfilled.
I can’t yet name it yet but the sound of vacancy grows louder.
After first semester, this void festers a deep guilt.
In obsessing over my training, immersing myself in what I thought would build me up,
I leave behind all concerns I used to have about the world beyond myself, and beyond the studio.
I begin to have doubts about my goals, my skills. I doubt I belong in my class.
I doubt whether CBC kids have a place in Canadian theatre.
I doubt art.
Is there any purpose in acting beyond the goal of “discovering myself?”
What good is another struggling actor in the world?
I agonize over how my pursuit of artmaking is possible only because of my family’s herculean efforts to become settled and stable in Canada. Saving, strategizing, sacrificing.
How does my artistry relate to the duties I have to myself, my family, my community, to politics and the world?
THE AAMJIWNAANG WATER GATHERING PT 3
One summer I become close with my colleague, Nathaniel Rose.
Like me, he identifies as an environmentalist. Like me, he worries that the theatre can be too self-centred and self-serving. Together we conspire to make something necessary, to use our art to tackle climate change. We haven’t yet heard of any plays about the environment, so we decide to create our own.
We’re enrolled in “World Theatre History” and learn about a zany group of Italians who form a powerful artistic and social movement called Futurism, focused on technology, succinctness, and the rejection of old forms. (The Futurists eventually become right-wing war-mongering fascists – but that’s a different story.) What inspires us about the Futurists is their ability to say a lot with very little.
We are taken by their goal of being succinct; to use time wisely.
It’s 2013 so Vines are still relevant, and the Futurists’ aesthetic seems to align well with our generation’s hyper-succinctness. Nate and I challenge ourselves to make plays that are short and sweet, that say a lot with a little. We decide to make plays that are three minutes or shorter.
Vines say a lot in 6 seconds; surely the theatre can do a lot with three minutes.
Since climate change requires us to be innovative, shouldn’t art about climate change be innovative too?
We challenge ourselves to be bold with form, experiment freely with each play, and make each work distinct from the last. We experiment with object puppetry, movement, clown, video, projections, stand-up comedy, and every possible mixture of form.
The benefit of short plays is twofold:
- A short play packs a helluva punch on its own
- Presenting multiple plays together allows audiences to interact with forms and topics they might otherwise never encounter.
Nathaniel and I continue creating punchy, political and playful vignettes over the next few years. To produce these new works, we create a company called Broadleaf Theatre. Our mandate is to create original performances from Canadian-perspectives on environmental issues.
We commit to making space in our work for artist-creators with marginal identities.
We engage creative friends and peers to produce these climate plays, creating opportunities for our peers to merge their craft with political interests.
We become a small community of ambitious, emerging artists and change-makers.
The global thermometer inches higher while we innovate and provoke.
We model art to reflect the world we want to see.
THE AAMJIWNAANG WATER GATHERING PT 4
Three years have passed since Nathaniel and I started Broadleaf Theatre. Nate moves on to other projects, and I helm Broadleaf as Artistic Director.
I begin refocusing.
I wonder if we’re doing enough.
Can our artistic practice go beyond the theatre and actively support on-the-ground activism?
Most people want to do something about climate change, but don’t know where to start.
Maybe Broadleaf can help.
Powerful political currents are moving in Canada.
Idle No More thrusts Indigenous efforts for sovereignty, and land and water protection firmly into national headlines.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission continues to circulate key findings and recommendations.
The historical injustices, traumas, and ongoing concerns of Indigenous peoples can no longer be downplayed or ignored.
It seems necessary to reckon with the troubling past in order to shape an equitable future.
I begin to research as much as I can about Canadian history.
THE AAMJIWNAANG WATER GATHERING PT 5
Throughout university, I work summers as a tour guide for student groups from across Canada.
For six summers I meet groups from every province.
As in theatre school, I am often the only yellow face on these tours.
I bring classes to cities across the country, to landmarks like the Parliament buildings and the Plains of Abraham. I teach them about our founding fathers, about Canadian valour in the World Wars.
But in those six years, I never learn anything about the people who had been here all along.
About history before the history I knew so much about.
I never utter the name of any Indigenous nations or figures (save for Joseph Brant, notable Mohawk military leader and a British ally). I know next to nothing about the peoples that took care of this land who — in their innate respect for the natural world — I was perhaps more aligned with. I learned that “founding fathers” like John A. MacDonald, who in my naive nationalism, I had placed on a pedestal, preached extermination and genocide to rectify “the Indian problem.” I cling to digestible narratives, profitable narratives where our founders are more saintly than genocidal.
As I learn about Canada’s past, I uncover more about myself. Colonization is a complex concept for Hong Kongers, who often wear their British “roots” as a matter of distinction and pride. I was taught that British colonization left a positive impact on Hong Kong, that they brought “society”, “culture” and “manners” – things that distinguished us from Mainlanders. My parents were proud to speak English, to immigrate to this country on British passports and become contributing members of Canadian society.
This was my inherited narrative.
The country I call home has troubling relations with Indigenous nations. It has also rejected people who look like me, creating insurmountable barriers for entry, denying citizenship, legislating xenophobia and perpetuating precarious labour well into the 20th century.
Beneath the laudable values of multiculturalism and acceptance is the labour of those who fight for visibility, equity, and safety.
THE AAMJIWNAANG WATER GATHERING PT 6
After months of reading, absorbing and recalibrating my understanding of place and of being,
I wonder where my people are.
We were once the targets of this country’s discrimination and hate.
Where are we in fighting the discrimination that persists?
Where are we in support of Indigenous sovereignty and justice?
Where are we as allies?
Are we allies?
Or just colonizers with Chinese last names?
In the midst of this questioning, the traces of Broadleaf’s next project appear.
Indigenous activists, beliefs, and worldviews need amplification.
Indigenous peoples need Canadians to come to the table to confront the truth and practice the fraught concept of reconciliation.
Scrolling through my Facebook timeline, an event catches my eye.
“Sarnia Toxic Tour and Aamjiwnaang Water Gathering.”
I read about a small Indigenous community smothered by Canada’s petrochemical industry. 800 people surrounded by over 50 factories.
A microcosm of the Canada I have inherited.
A crisis I’d never heard about, in a reserve only 3 hours away from home.
I click Going.
THE CHEMICAL VALLEY PROJECT
Protest. Performance. Reconciliation.
Toronto Premiere at Theatre Passe Muraille
April 4 – 20, 2019
$15 Student/Arts Worker
Pay-What-You-Can Weekend Matinees
Connect with Kevin at:
Kevin Matthew Wong is a theatre creator, performer, arts facilitator and producer focused on creating social commentary through performance. His work often includes multimedia, video and projections design, object puppetry and storytelling. In 2014 he co-founded Broadleaf Theatre, which creates live performance from Canadian perspectives on environmental issues. Kevin is a fellow of the American social justice residency The Gardarev Center, Cahoots Theatre’s Hot House Creators Unit, and was a member of fu-Gen Asian Canadian Theatre’s Interdisciplinary Kitchen XV. He is currently creating a new work about the Hong Kong – Canadian diaspora entitled, Siu Bah, and collaborating with performer-creator Philip Nozuka on Proof of Existence, a performance art musing on authenticity, amateurship and internet culture.