Monday, August 13, 2012

Oil and Water: Shipwrecked in Newfoundland

Oil and Water: Shipwrecked in Newfoundland

26 April 2012 One Comment

Oil and Water
Written by Robert Chafe
Factory Theatre, Toronto
Continues to May 6, 2012
Tickets: Factory Theatre
Reviewed by Anya Wassenberg

Oil and Water is an ingenious play that intertwines three storylines to bring focus to the unique – and true to life – history of Lanier Phillips, an American who was the only black sailor to survive a naval disaster off the coast of Newfoundland in 1942. Its success rests solidly on the compelling acting of an ensemble cast and inventive staging, along with the inventive music of Toronto composer Andrew Craig.

There are several layers to the innovative play that unfolds in various ways; at times the play’s three storylines drift into each other, at others they happen simultaneously.

One of the threads brings to life the disillusionment of black men who thought the navy was their ticket to equal opportunity based on merit. Instead they found a narrow world even more encumbered by prejudice than the segregated South of the WWII era. Phillips is embittered, stuck shining shoes and working in the mess hall with no hope of advancement. He and the only other African American sailor sleep below decks and aren’t so much as allowed to eat with their white fellow sailors. He’s accompanied by the spirit of his great grandmother, an African slave who counsels and tries to protect him.

Then the worst happens. The USS Truxton runs aground in a violent storm off the coast of Newfoundland. The two black sailors are stuck on the sinking boat after the lifeboats leave and seemingly against all reason, Phillips jumps into the freezing waters. He’s one of only 56 survivors of the original crew of 146 who washes up on the rocky shore near St. Lawrence, Newfoundland.

What awaits him is the selfless compassion of the people of the town who go in search of the survivors and lovingly wash off the oil slick from the disabled ship that covers them. To his surprise, Lanier is accepted as an equal by the good-hearted Newfoundlanders — who’d never seen a black man before — and is welcomed as a friend.

Another storyline looks at the Newfoundlanders stuck between the sea and the mines as a way of eking out a hard living. The people of St. Lawrence stand out for their wry sense of humour and simple compassion for others in tough circumstances, which leads them to naturally go out of their way to help the shipwrecked sailors.

The third storyline is equally true to history. It looks at an older Lanier Phillips and his daughter set against the violent school riots that erupted when the city of Boston first desegregated their schools in 1974. There is a real sense of authenticity not only in the script, but in the portrayals of these characters and the lives that, under normal circumstances, would never have intersected.

The script is infused with bright spots of humour and poetry. “This is the curliest hair I’ve ever seen!” exclaims Violet, one of the women who tends to Phillips. “Like a little lamb.”

Andrew Craig’s music provides a dimensional accompaniment to the action on the stage, and combines the sweet harmonies of Newfoundland’s traditional music with that of African American spirituals.

The actors remain on stage throughout the entire performance — when their character is not in the scene, they stand off to the side or back and provide the musical accompaniment. Their humming or singing, sometimes solo and sometimes in gorgeous harmony, underpins virtually all the action in the play. Another unique musical element can be heard in the characters’ varying Newfoundlander and Georgia accents.

Lanier Phillips left St. Lawrence with a smile on his face — even though the Navy put him on a separate bus by himself to get him back to base. In real life, as in the play, it was a brief, two-day experience that changed his life forever. He realized that racism is something that is taught and therefore can be changed, and he became a civil rights activist who marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. He continued to speak about the incident until his death recently in March 2012.

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