Factory Theatre/Artistic Fraud – Robert Chafe’s Oil and Water

Artistic fraud of St. John’s, Newfoundland, is one of Canada’s most imaginative companies, both in staging and subject matter. Oil and Water, which is part of Factory Theatre’s Performance Spring Festival, is the latest show from the fertile minds of writer Robert Chafe and director Jillian Keiley.

First, mention must be made of Shawn Kerwin’s remarkable set. The main image is a triangular scaffold structure – a tower set on a rocking horse base that can convey the movement of the waves, as well as being a ladder that can evoke a steep cliff. On either side are tables made up of pails and metal washing bowels set on planks of wood. Tall ladders are at the back. In other words, we get the image of the sea, the rough hewn landscape of coastal Newfoundland, and the starkness of rural poverty, all at the same time.

The inspiration for the play is the American sailor Lanier Phillips. In 1942, his convoy ship, USS Truxtun, floundered on the rocks near the village of St. Lawrence. Phillips was one of only 46 men who made it to shore, covered in oil from the leaking bilges. He was also the only black sailor to survive. The most touching part of the show is when Violent Pike tries to wash his skin clean of oil, and only after scrubbing intensely, does she realize that the sailor is a black man, the first she has ever seen. The kindness and equality shown to Phillips by the Newfoundlanders changed his life forever.

Chafe has three different storylines in his play. In the first act, we see Lanier, the young man (Jeremiah Sparks) on board his ship, interacting with his black messmate Langston (Mike Payette), and the white sailor Bergeron (Clint Butler). Blacks in the navy could not rise above being mess attendants or deck swabbers. There is also the ghost of his slave grandmother Adeline (Neema Bickersteth), always counselling him to be wary of white people. The second story is about the much older Phillips (Ryan Allen) in 1974, and the horrors encountered by his daughter Vonzia (Starr Domingue) as Boston tries to integrate its schools. The third is the life of the Newfoundland Pike family, Violet (Petrina Bromley), her husband John (Jody Richardson), her nephew Levi (Mark Power), and her friend Ena (Alison Woolridge) who is obsessed with taking pictures.

While the older Phillips watches all the stories, we see that John is constantly coughing as a result of dust from the mine that is killing him. That Phillips’ daughter Vonzia is traumatized by the stones and rocks thrown at her school bus. That shipboard life has just as much racism as on land. The crucible of the play comes with the second act, and the rescue of the men. Lanier throws himself in the sea against the advice of his grandmother who warns him about the white people on shore. The scene of Lanier in the sea is absolutely dramatic and brilliantly conceived, with pails of water being thrown on him as he struggles on the ropes of the rocking triangle. His rescue and interface with the Pike family is absolutely poignant.

Vonzia holds her father to account which her tormented question, “What are you going to do?” That is when Phillips tells her about the Pike family and their kindness, and in that tale there is hope. Chafe chose to end his play there, but there is a curious dissatisfaction, and I, for example, wanted to know what he did do. The program notes tell us that Phillips became a civil rights activist with Martin Luther King, but maybe we needed to see this. The play does seem to end abruptly.

On the other hand, the characters are absolutely believable and the Chafe/Keiley team scores another winner with the presentation of the raw truth. How the town of St. Lawrence rose to heroic stature, despite their poverty, whether on the sea or in the mines. How Phillips always remembered his encounter with them as a life-altering experience.

Once again, the very talented Andrew Craig has composed a soundscape that his hummed and sung by the acting ensemble, made up of both Newfoundland folk melodies and black gospel tunes. There is always music in the background of Oil and Water that captures the cinematic nature of the story.

Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland never disappoints. The large cast is a powerhouse of acting skills, particularly Bromley’s Violet. The set is a visual canvas of many images. The contrast between the stories evokes many disturbing themes. In short, the cleverly titled Oil and Water is a total theatrical experience that is not to be missed.

Robert Chafe’s Oil and Water, Artistic Fraud, Factory Theatre’s Performance Spring Festival, (starring Ryan Allen, Neema Bickersteth, Petrina Bromley, Clint Butler, Starr Domingue, Mike Payette, Mark Power, Jody Richardson, Jeremiah Sparks and Alison Woolridge, directed by Jillian Keiley), choral score by Andrew Craig, April 18 to May 6, 2012.