The Peace River District is a vast geographic region in northeastern B.C. At 119,337 square kilometres, it’s more than 1,000 times the size of Vancouver and includes the communities of Fort St. John, Dawson Creek, Tumbler Ridge, Hudson Hope, and Chetwynd. It was hit especially hard this past summer by the Donnie Creek wildfire, which was the largest in recent B.C. history.
This makes rice & beans artistic director Pedro Chamale’s new two-act play, Peace Country, especially timely. The Latinx theatre artist was born and raised in Chetwynd. And Peace Country is set in a small resource-dependent Northern Interior town, like his hometown, after a new climate-conscious political party rises to power.
“This is definitely one of the most ambitious things I’ve ever done,” Chamale tells Pancouver by phone. “It’s the largest play I’ve ever written.”
He adds that there’s lots of dialogue and plenty of jokes, notwithstanding the seriousness of the climate crisis. Two of the characters are Latinx sisters Julia and Alicia (Manuela Sosa and Sofía Rodríguez). Another is a Chinese restaurant owner’s son Greg (Angus Yam). Then there is Candice (Kaitlyn Yott), who’s Indigenous, and a white settler of European ancestry, Melissa (Sara Vickruck).
“They all have a little bit of me,” the writer-director states.
In addition, his team of designers has incorporated magical realism into the production to convey a forest fire bearing down on a community. His goal is to give a voice to people living in small towns.
Humble roots in Peace Country
As a former Chetwynd resident, Chamale understands the perspectives of those who worry about losing their livelihood by eliminating fossil-fuel extraction. Yet as an urban environmentalist, he recognizes the very real fear of a climate-induced Armageddon without a sharp reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
“My dad was a coal miner,” Chamale reveals. “My mom worked as a chambermaid. She worked dozens of jobs in town, supporting us after my dad got sick there. We were a blue-collar family living in a double-wide trailer, but we were part of the town.”
His parents were immigrants from Guatemala. Even though they integrated well, they also stuck out because they were the only Latinx family in the community.
“Of course, there’s all the racial politics that happens in a town that’s surrounded by two reserves and settled by white euros,” Chamale says. “All that was there in the background and I became aware of it as I got older. But as a kid, I didn’t really matter where folks were from.”
After high school, he moved to the Lower Mainland to study theatre performance at SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts. From there, he went on to work for various theatre companies, including The Only Animal, which won a national award earlier this year for creating the climate-awareness-raising Artist Brigade. Chamale played the role of Frezzie in its show Slime.
“I was part of their Artist Brigade,” he says. “Now, I hike with them up into the mountains to see the bear dens in this 2,000-year-old tree that was going to be cut down.”
Rural residents aren’t ignorant of dangers
For Chamale, global heating is very real. Moreover, he worries that it’s having a disproportionate impact on those in lower classes. That’s because they don’t have the money to make green purchases or shelter in ways that offer greater protection from changing temperatures and more powerful storms.
Chamale also emphasizes that rural residents aren’t ignorant about the dangers faced by a warming planet. But there just aren’t options right now for them to make the transition into new occupations.
“It’s easy to yell ‘End it now,’ but what is the human effect of that?” he asks. “Are we willing to sacrifice people’s livelihoods—to throw them into different class systems?”
In researching Peace Country, Chamale and dramaturg Heidi Taylor read about ways to bring about a just transition for workers. Chamale says that he also examined every political party’s platform on climate initiatives. In addition, he read a book about the massive wildfire in Fort McMurray in 2016.
The rice & beans theatre artistic director hopes that his play will stimulate a broader discussion.
“Who am I to show or tell what to do?” Chamale declares with a touch of humility. “I’m putting out others’ amazing questions and asking the audience to take action.”
The Firehall Arts Centre launches its 2023-24 season with Pedro Chamale’s Peace Country from October 12 to 22. For tickets and more information, visit the Firehall’s website. The show is produced by rice & beans theatre, created with support from the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. Peace Country was developed in association with Playwrights Theatre Centre and Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.