Oil and Water: a complicated success

A powerful play that doesn’t just tell a heartwarming story

Patrons across the province will soon have the opportunity to witness one of Newfoundland’s iconic stories presented in spectacular fashion by one of our most talented theatrical companies.

Oil and Water – which quickly sold out last year’s debut performance in St. John’s and just finished a three-week run in Toronto – tells the now well-known story of Lanier Phillips, the African-American sailor who survived a shipwreck off the coast of St. Lawrence, Newfoundland during World War II and went on to become one of the island’s national heroes; a civil rights activist in the US who attributed his work in part to the transformative experience he had in Newfoundland.

The story has many tellings and many meanings, but the one which has become most politically central is as an allegory for the welcoming and tolerant nature of Newfoundland culture, and the kindness, openness and inclusivity with which we wish to associate it. The iconic moment of the play – the moment when two local women who have never seen somebody who wasn’t white are washing the bodies of the survivors and Phillips has to tell them the dark colour of his skin is natural and not oil and therefore to please stop trying to wash it off – has come to represent in many ways the way we want to see ourselves: unfamiliar with the complex ways of the wider world, yet ultimately driven by compassion and humanity when our eyes are opened and when we face the unknown.

But let’s be honest

This telling of our culture is not entirely true, of course. The Beothuk would heartily dispute the allegory of openness and tolerance, were they around today to do so. So too, no doubt, would the Chinese – who were here as early as 1895, almost half a century before Phillips – and to whom the government of Newfoundland and Labrador apologized in 2006 for the discriminatory head tax it charged them as a way of trying to deter settlement on the island by those who were not white. Not to mention, of course, the sectarian strife among white settlers themselves – particularly the Irish Catholics and English Protestants – and the heinous rejection by Newfoundland of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution in the mid to late 1930s. (we can blame that one on Commission of Government – some local leaders and communities did want to accept them – but it doesn’t really make things any better, does it?)

 The story of race and tolerance is a complicated one. But the tale of Oil and Water is more than just a story — it is allegory; it is a vision of the just and tolerant society which many of us would like to see.

So the story of race and tolerance is a complicated one. But the tale of Oil and Water is more than just a story – it is allegory; it is a vision of the just and tolerant society which many of us would like to see. And this is the source of its enduring – and growing – power. Lanier Phillips himself – honoured not only by our own province but by the Canadian and US governments as well for his civil rights activism – has achieved a sort of beatification; his memory a saintly, spirit symbol beckoning us to a better way. As the federal Conservative government tightens migration restrictions for non-white points of origin and passes legislation depriving migrant workers of basic human rights and labour standards, such a potent reminder of an alternative, less mean vision becomes ever more powerful for a society yearning to cling to the memory of its own humanity.

And the story has taken on near mythic dimensions. I was at a conference recently where a guest speaker from the mainland gave a keynote address. He told us a story about how his father grew up in India and then lived in Africa for some time. Forced to flee Africa, he arrived in Canada. Somehow – he said his father was murky on the details – his father wound up in a hospital in Newfoundland shortly after he arrived in Canada, and awoke to find the nurses there trying to wash the dark colour off his skin, until he told them it was his natural skin colour, and not oil or dirt. Myself and several of the other Newfoundlanders in the audience looked at each other in mild astonishment as he told what sounded like a bizarre appropriation of the Lanier Phillips story. Did he make it up? Had his father made it up, hearing, perhaps, some distorted version of the actual story so many decades earlier?

Whatever the truth, it demonstrated very aptly the mythic quality the story has taken on.

Mainlanders don’t get it

I happened to first catch the play, ironically, in Toronto during its recent run there. Yet the play received some criticism from the national press during its recent Toronto run. Not very heavy criticism mind you – the reviews were overwhelmingly positive (the Globe gave it 3 out of 4 stars).

But the criticism it did receive – from both the Globe and the National Post – suggested the story as presented was a bit too complicated for the stage; that the shifting between eras and the intersecting storylines produced confusion and should have been avoided.

I heartily disagree.

 This isn’t just a pretty, heart-warming story; this is theatre showing what theatre can do: tell stories that challenge the present. This is theatre being important, not just pretty.

The intersecting storylines are central to the play’s success, and something for which playwright Robert Chafe ought to be commended. For those who have yet to see it, the play opens in 1974 Boston, which is trying to integrate children into a desegregated school system. An older Lanier Phillips and his young daughter are dealing with the racism surrounding the civil rights struggle which is in full swing. Phillips has at this point become a champion of the non-violent civil rights struggle; his daughter derides both his pacifism and his hope. Amid the racial hatred and violence all about them, Phillips starts to tell his daughter the story of how he came to be the person he is at that point. And so the action reverts to the coast off Newfoundland 32 years earlier, where he is a young private in the very racialized US navy.

From that point on, the plot shifts between the story of the 1942 shipwreck, and the struggles of the older Phillips and his daughter a few decades later (to further complicate things, the ghost of his great-grandmother swoops in from time to time, to add her perspective on matters). But Phillips’ tale isn’t the only story being told. The play focuses just as strongly on the plight of the community which rescued him. St. Lawrence was a poor, rural mining town, and the key characters – the family that eventually took Phillips in – are involved both in the mine and in the union which is struggling to improve working conditions for the Newfoundlanders struggling in its squalor, danger and disease.

Here’s where the story becomes a bit too complicated for our national reviewers, but here too is where the story makes its most important and innovative points. This isn’t just a pretty, heart-warming story; this is theatre showing what theatre can do: tell stories that challenge the present. This is theatre being important, not just pretty.

Theatre of intersectionality

By weaving together the civil rights struggles of African-Americans in the 1970s and the labour rights struggles of miners in 1940s Newfoundland, a parallel is being drawn between the oppression – and intersections – of class and race and the very delicate thread of hope and faith that keeps both struggles going. Just as Violet – wife of miner and union organizer John – begs him to give up the mine and the union, so too does Phillips’ daughter beg him to either take her out of school or throw a rock back at the racists like some of the more militant community members. It’s a challenging parallel for Chafe to draw (if he even does so intentionally), but it’s an important one.

 Such realities are grim and yes, they are complicated. And that is what makes theatre of this type—that doesn’t shy away from the complicated, and the troubling, and the difficult—such a vital part of our culture…

I was at a conference recently where a discussion arose around how it’s possible to take the intersectionality of struggles – around race, around gender, around class – and depict those in real, concrete terms, and not just in dense academic textbooks. Well Oil and Water manages to do just that, by demonstrating live on stage the intersections of race and class struggles – and the magic that is produced when they are brought together and revealed for what they are. It forces us to consider what might happen if the racism suffered by African-Americans were to be combined with the brutal class exploitation suffered by entire communities of Newfoundlanders at the hands of fishing merchants and mining and logging companies. And it makes us wonder how well we would do deal with this grim reality in our society today.

It’s perhaps no surprise that well-to-do critics writing in one of the most race-addled, discrimination-rife cities in Canada found these juxtapositions difficult (or, more likely, unsettling). Such realities are grim and yes, they are complicated. And that is what makes theatre of this type – that doesn’t shy away from the complicated, and the troubling, and the difficult – such a vital part of our culture, and such a valuable source of inspiration and talent. Chafe and director Jillian Kieley take what seems to be a sweet story, but use it to reveal the more complicated truths that lie within it – and within ourselves.

The national reviewers wanted a nice, straightforward, heart-warming story (they admit as much in their reviews); but what they got was a complicated journey that unsettled their very understanding of themselves. And if that isn’t a sign of the power of this production, I don’t know what is.

A powerful story told by a talented crew

Talent is rife throughout the play’s presentation as well. The stage, the songs, the music – Artistic Fraud leave nothing to chance, and pull off a smooth and spectacular presentation of this incredible story. Spectacle is the order of the day: large sets, loud noises, song and music and action that smoothly makes full use of the stage. First-rate acting helps carry the ambitious plot to its successful conclusion. Of particular note for me was the work of Jody Richardson, who plays the idealistic – and increasingly ill – miner John. Perhaps this is due to the fact I’m mostly familiar with Richardson’s boisterous stage presence as lead singer of local indie rock band The Pathological Lovers (among other projects), but the character of John allows Richardson to explore an entirely different side of himself. He excels as the soft-spoken, long-suffering and self-confident John; the epitome of the shy, kind-hearted bayman: a character type which has become as much a cultural icon as Phillips himself.

 [I]t’s an important time for us to reflection on what values we truly do want to make our own…We shouldn’t be taken in by the Phillips story and think our heritage is entirely clean of the taint of racism…

Together, Phillips (Ryan Allen; the older version of him played by Jeremiah Sparks) and John and the characters of local women Violet and Ena (who also struggle with the woes of the world but do so with a strong dose of traditional humour, and played by Petrina Bromley and Alison Woolridge, respectively), coupled with a variety of talented actors in secondary roles, make Oil and Water fuel not just for the mind, but a pleasure for all the senses.

The play is called Oil and Water, and it is a title evocative of the significance this play holds for our culture at this time. In an era when the lure of oil is drawing the complicated outer world ever closer to our shores – with all the good and evil which that entails – it’s an important time for us to reflect on what values we truly do want to make our own. I use that term very deliberately. We shouldn’t be taken in by the Phillips story and think our heritage is entirely clean of the taint of racism; as I have already pointed out, it’s not, and the Phillips story doesn’t wipe that past clean. But the Phillips story does show that the possibility of a different way lies within us – as it did for that poor union mining town 70 years ago.

And what of the water? The water that washed away Phillips’ hate as he lay recovering from the shipwreck enables him to stand firm in his non-violent civil rights activism decades later; the hatred of the white Americans around him washes off him as he holds tight to the powerful memory of his second home in Newfoundland. Likewise, for us, the story leaves us feeling a sort of purification: temporarily cleansed of the worries of our present, refreshed to struggle for the kinder and greater future that Lanier Phillips – and Artistic Fraud – have shown us is possible.

Oil and Water is playing from June 13-16 at the Magnetic North Theatre Festival in Calgary, and then from June 19 – July 6 at Arts and Culture Centres across Newfoundland and Labrador. For further details, check out Artistic Fraud’s webpage or the Arts and Culture schedule for you a show near you.

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