Artistic Fraud’s remarkable (and sold out) production of Robert Chafe’s new play, Oil and Water, revolves around the true story of African American sailor Lanier Phillips. Phillips was serving on the USS Truxton, which ran aground at St. Lawrence (NL) during a storm in February 1942, killing more than one hundred sailors. Local residents managed to rescue 46 of the crew, including Phillips (played as a young man by Ryan Field and as an older man by Jeremiah Sparks).
Chafe, who won the 2010 Governor General’s Award for drama, handles his material brilliantly in a script that shifts smoothly from the lyrical to the mundane to the sacred to the comic. With his extremely economical dialogue, Chafe manages powerfully to convey a great deal in the 90-minute play: Phillips’ terrifying experience in 1942; his efforts to send his daughter Vonzia (Starr Domingue) to an integrated school in Boston two decades later; the slave existence of Phillips’ great grandmother Adeline (Neema Bickersteth); and the harsh lives of mining families in St. Lawrence.
But Oil and Water is, fundamentally, about Lanier Phillips’ redemption. Cast into the frigid waters of the North Atlantic, he is reborn on the shores of the Burin Peninsula when he realizes that St. Lawrence residents do not despise him for the colour of his skin. Chafe makes clear that, just as Violet (Petrina Bromley) wipes clean the ship’s spilled fuel from Phillips’ body, so does the respect that white Newfoundlanders show him help begin to cleanse the hatred that he had built up from years of violent bigotry in the South, which extended to the menial work he had to perform on the Truxton.
Jillian Keiley directs the show with precision and inventiveness. The set’s centrepiece is a kind of ladder on rockers that resembles a sextant, which serves, at different moments during the production, as the Truxton, the cliffs above the foundering ship, and Vonzia’s school bus. In one remarkable scene, it becomes the ocean: suspended by ropes, Field “swims” inside the structure’s triangular aperture, reaching out and upwards in hope of reaching the shore as two other actors splash him with water. Two tall stepladders are placed upstage of this structure, and much of the time Adeline sits atop the stage right ladder, addressing her great-grandson. Violet and her husband John’s (Sean Panting) kitchen, downstage left, is suggested by metal tubs, buckets and rough wooden boards.
Keiley moves her actors around this set discreetly but intelligently. Assisted by Leigh Ann Vardy’s deceptively subtle lighting design, which effectively defines areas of the set and underscores the scenes’ disparate tones, Keiley alternately keeps certain elements of the action scenes separate from each other and allows them to flow together. The director works with Chafe’s material to give the impression of historical events ebbing and flowing across time, and her instinct for knowing how to pull one chronologically distant moment into the next is flawless.
The precision that Keiley imposes upon the action does not come at the expense of emotion. Far from it. Musical director Kellie Walsh has driven the cast—which, collectively, has decades of musical experience—to get the most out of Andrew Craig’s musical composition and arrangement that blends traditional Newfoundland and Labrador music with spirituals. Often the cast stand in the shadows singing wordlessly or humming, which is moving enough in itself. But when we hear, for instance, “There is a Balm in Gilead,” the power of the words and the longing for deliverance with which they are conveyed are simply overwhelming.
The script is, as I noted, economical, and the actors must impart a great deal with dialogue that is frequently poetic but often seems to occur in short bursts; the speech is not vague but interlocutions seem to be over quickly. The performers are certainly up to the challenge. Field’s angry young Phillips is especially compelling in the scenes with Bickersteth, whose Adeline is at once tough and loving. Bromley’s Violet is Adeline’s Newfoundland counterpart, a compassionate woman whose hard-headedness is a natural response to her circumstances. She is not without a sense of humour, though; Bromley reveals the depth of her love for John in a brief moment of levity near the play’s close that bears witness to both Bromley’s and Panting’s abilities to suggest their complex relationship with very few words. Jeremiah Sparks gives us a fully matured (but not invulnerable) Phillips who must guide Domingue’s precocious Vonzia through her own frightening and bitter encounters with de facto segregation. Clint Butler, Mark Power, and Alison Woolridge each play slightly smaller but crucial roles with conviction.
In his program note, Chafe expresses concern that he must use one “black sailor to stand in for all African American sailors” and that “[t]wo miners must represent all the working men of St. Lawrence.” There is also, I think, a concern that the play positions the people of St. Lawrence (at least its women, perhaps?) as “angelic.” That is, in Oil and Water, Newfoundland may be a place with its own inequalities but it also becomes a haven of tolerance—and, for Phillips, this was historically true. Yet so much of the emotion that the audience experiences depends on our own historical perspective(s); besides questions of who is able to speak for whom, the production’s affective qualities reinforce a sense of moral superiority over the United States (including the late twentieth-century North) that would resonate not just in Newfoundland and Labrador but across Canada in 2011. Audiences’ perspectives and motives need to remain clear—or as clear as they can be—when witnessing the canonization of one type of “whiteness.”
To be fair, the production does not make things quite so simple. Phillips is re-born in two parts: he first ignores Adeline’s warning not to abandon ship, the sinking locus of his servitude; this act of rebellion turns out to be an act of faith in the second part of his rebirth when he realizes that not all white people automatically hate him for being black. The play reminds us that he must return to his segregated world. To indulge in mixed typologies, Phillips may have been redeemed by selfless love (and the show leaves no doubt that his is a Christian experience) but Phillips left the Burin to became part of the “Moses” generation of African Americans who showed the way to the promised land of “equality” but did not make it across the Jordan. In life, things were more complex than this Biblical metaphor: Phillips fought very hard to become the first black sonar technician in the U.S. Navy, participated in the civil rights movement, and enjoyed a career in marine research.
The struggle he undertook after the war is limited in the play to his efforts to make his daughter part of integrated America, but the tension between Phillips’ harsh struggle and his redemptive encounter in St. Lawrence is, I think, captured at the very end of the show. As Phillips posed for a photograph standing next to another survivor, a white sailor he disliked, Field first bowed his head but then lifted it and spread a smile across his face. I could not tell if the expression was genuinely optimistic or a forced reaction to help him get through the experience. Did the smile represent the emergence of a grim determination to get on with what he (and eventually Vonzia) had to do and did eventually accomplish, or did it suggest his realization of what he could accomplish in light of his “salvation” in St. Lawrence? In the context of this performance, both seem possible.