PHOTO OF XAVIER CAMPBELL AND PETRINA BROMLEY COURTESY OF PAUL DALY
Oil and Water
June 13 to 16, 2012
Listen to my review on CBC Eyeopener at http://www.cbc.ca/eyeopener/columnists/theatre/2012/06/14/oil-and-water/
It sounds like the ultimate Newfie joke. A woman rescues an unconscious black sailor from a shipwreck, brings him to shore and tries to wash the black off him thinking he’s covered in oil. It isn’t until he wakes up and informs her that he is black does she realize why she can’t get the colour off him.
Thing is, it’s not a joke. It really happened and far from being funny, it was a profoundly positive life altering experience for the black man.
Oil and Water, the opening play at this year’s Magnetic North Festival, tells the true story of Lanier Phillips, a black sailor in the US Navy whose ship was wrecked in 1942 off the coast of Newfoundland in a violent storm. He was the first black man the small Newfoundland community had ever seen and they were the first white people that had ever treated Lanier with humanity and kindness.
Written by Governor General Award-winning playwright Robert Chafe and Directed by Artistic Fraud Artistic Director (and soon to be National Arts Centre’s new Artistic Director of English Theatre) Jillian Keiley, Oil and Water uses dramatization, flashback, fantasy and a capella song to tell this amazing story.
The problem is, the play nowhere near matches the inspiration Lanier’s story delivers and deserves. The writing and acting are so earnest and heavy-handed and reverential that I felt as though I was being submitted to a combination of lecturing and hollow emotional string-pulling.
More problematic however was the structure of the play itself. Instead of letting the rescue and the after effects speak for themselves, Chafe muddies the play with several side stories that are related, but not overly compelling. For almost the entire play we are deprived of the story we really want to see (the rescue) and made to watch the poorly written and an amateurishly acted story of a present day Lanier (Jeremiah Sparks) and his daughter (Starr Domingue) who is experiencing violence in her recently desegregated school. Much of our time is also taken up with the backstory of the Newfoundland rescuer Violet Pike (Petrina Bromley) and her miner husband John (Jody Richardson) who is suffering the health effects of working underground. While this side story is both well-acted and nicely written, it adds nothing to the narrative and just continues to frustrate the desire to get on with it and deliver Lanier’s story. Worst of all is the inclusion of the ghost-like figure of Lanier’s slave great-grandmother (Neema Bickersteth) who speaks to the young Lanier (Jeremiah Sparks) throughout play in a negative spewing of warnings and advice. I understand that this was meant to be representative of all the fear and bigotry that was part of Lanier’s history, but the dialogue lacked empathy and was therefore oppressive without giving the audience room to feel the hurt and pain.
Near the end of Oil and Water we are treated to the rescue/washing scene and it is touching in its simplicity. But 10 minutes later when Lanier declares he was deeply moved and changed by the experience, it falls flat. Good theatre is a balance between show and tell and Lanier simply telling us he was affected in a short line at the end of the play made me feel cheated out of the story I very much wanted to experience.
Good thing then that I could distract from my disappointment by focusing on how attractive the production was. Shawn Kerwin’s set design with its minimalist triangular wooden rocking ship and his clever use of buckets and planks to create furniture was beautifully realized. Equally masterful was Keiley’s direction of all the storylines. Taking full advantage of the stage’s openness, Keiley confidently moves her actors about and delivers an especially stunning shipwreck scene.
But beauty over substance is especially unacceptable when trying to tell such an inspiring story. One that all Canadians can learn from. It’s a tale worth hearing, but to truly get the meaning of what happened to Lanier Phillips it’s probably better to go online and read his story yourself.
For the guys and the girls – You’ll desperately want to connect with the characters, but the split story structure and the superfluous narratives get in the way of the play you probably wanted to see in the first place. SKIP IT
For the occasional theatre goer – The play looks cool, it’s a true story and maybe you won’t be bothered by the hollowness of it. MAYBE SEE IT
For the theatre junkie – Unsatisfactory writing some hackneyed acting on the one hand. Visually interesting and wonderfully directed on the other. To me, one doesn’t make up for the other. SKIP IT