Pearle Harbour’s Chautauqua: a haven in troubling times

Pearle Harbour sings a song in Chautauqua, with her accompanist, Mr. Gantry.

Pearle Harbour prepares to take flight in Chautauqua.

Pearle Harbour’s Chautauquais like a revival meeting for liberals—and a lot of us could use reviving these days.

Chautauquas were a kind of tent meeting popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that offered a combination of entertainment and inspirational lectures—sort of like Tony Robbins, but with a band.

In her chautauqua, Toronto drag queen Pearle Harbour invites us into a little cotton tent that seats 40. Her hairstyle and trimly tailored jacket refer to the period around WWII but, in her tent, Pearle offers refuge from current sources of anxiety. She fleetingly refers to ice caps melting. She knows what it’s like when “the only light in your life is the screen in your pocket.”

And she offers solace in the form of communion. The venue and the size of the gathering are already intimate. Pearle asks us all to breathe with her and, near the top of her show, she personally greets every member of the audience. As a theatregoer, I’ve never spent so much time gazing directly into a performer’s eyes.

Beyond presence, Pearle’s message is about compassion, about not losing sight of the humanity in others. In one memorable sequence—particularly memorable for me because I got to eat a Creamsicle—Pearle tries to negotiate a rapprochement between the Fudgesicle fans in the crowd and the Creamsicle lovers. Participation is a big part of the communion.

Structurally, things get a little wobbly sometimes. The set-up goes on long enough that I had time to wonder what was being set up. The crisis could be more sharply defined. And, on opening night, there were a couple of times when Pearle veered dangerously close to shaming audience members, which was uncomfortable and, I think, antithetical.

For the most part, though, I was blissed out to be playing with a mid-sized group of people, to be invited to stay present, and to be reminded of the importance of kindness.

PEARLE HARBOUR’S CHAUTAUQUA By Pearle Harbour (Justin Miller). Directed by Brian Laviolette. Presented by Pi Theatre. In the Vancity Culture Lab on Thursday, June 28. Continues until June 30.


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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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