HAYWARD -- As Rachel LePell watched protests in 2010 and 2011 at Chabot College against a proposed power plant, the kernel of an idea emerged.
The college had actively fought construction of the power plant about a mile from campus, saying it posed a health risk to its students.
"There was a lot of discussion on campus. There actually was a protest that Chabot organized against the power plant," LePell said.
The controversy piqued the drama instructor's interest as a playwright. "I am interested in very complicated public issues and looking at the complexity of individuals within that public issue," she said. "That's something I look forward to doing and exploring."
The result is the play "Particulate Matter," which will debut Wednesday. LePell not only wrote the play, she also is directing the student cast.
"This is such a Hayward play. It is very much inspired by the local political noise that was made around the building of the power plant," LePell said. "The title refers to microscopic pieces in the air that Russell City Energy Center will be emitting once it gets up and running. It has a metaphoric meaning."
Calpine proposed a natural gas-powered plant along the Hayward shoreline more than a decade ago, and the project moved slowly through the permit process. Opponents included a grass-roots organization, Citizens Against Pollution, which filed an unsuccessful lawsuit opposing the plant. And earlier this year,
Those fighting the project contended that emissions from the plant would pose health risks to those living, working and attending school nearby.
In 2010, Chabot College organized a "teach-in" to rally students, and filed a lawsuit to try to stop construction. When a state senator threatened the college with an audit after the suit was filed, then-Chancellor Joel Kinnamon responded, "Dirty politics for a dirty power plant."
Despite the opposition, construction of the 691-megawatt plant on 19 acres between Depot Road and Enterprise Avenue began in 2011. Completion of Russell City Energy Center is expected sometime next year.
During the protests, "I was involved as a curious artist," LePell said. "I wouldn't say I could be counted on either side of the issue. But I was around and listening and paying attention. I was very interested in exploring the different angles of the building of the power plant and people's fears surrounding the project."
LePell has been teaching drama for 20 years and writing plays for 25 years. Like other plays she has written for the college, "Particulate Matter" has a large cast for two reasons. There have to be enough parts so that students can get class credit. Also, the play has a classical Greek chorus, which needs six to 12 people.
The play revolves around a couple in their late 20s. Josh is an activist fighting construction of the power plant. His wife, Lily, who is getting her doctorate in biology and takes a more scientific approach, is not enthusiastic about his position, LePell said.
"I was interested in how this marriage gets stressed because of differing views on something that's local and so important," she said.
Even though "Particulate Matter" tackles a serious topic, LePell calls the play a comedy drama, and several of the characters are inspired by people who took part in the fight to stop the power plant.
"Once they take over and become a person in my imagination, they don't necessarily resemble a real person," she said. "You won't be able to say, 'Aha! That's so-and-so.'"
By Rachel LePell
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 7-9, 2 p.m. Nov. 10-11
Where: Chabot College Performing Arts Center, 25555 Hesperian Blvd., Hayward
Details: www.chabotcollege.edu/theaterarts, 510-723-6830