Survivor’s story

Paul Herridge
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Artistic Fraud recounts USS Truxtun wreck, and how it changed one man’s life

Marystown — Oil and water are two of the things this province is most known for.    

It’s also the name of St. John’s-based Artistic Fraud’s latest production chronicling the life of Lanier Phillips, the only African-American survivor when navy ship USS Truxtun sank just off St. Lawrence on Feb. 18, 1942.

Scriptwriter and Governor General Award winner Robert Chafe and director Jillian Keiley are two of the driving creative forces behind the company. They started trying to bring the story to the stage four years ago.

The wreck and St. Lawrence residents’ and rescuers’ kindness to Phillips is a well-known tale in these parts and increasingly so elsewhere, reaching the ears of comedic legend Bill Cosby in recent years.

The USS Truxtun was one of a trio of American ships — along with the USS Pollux and the USS Wilkes — sailing to Argentia during a big winter storm that night. The Wilkes escaped unharmed, but the Truxtun and Pollux both ran aground, resulting in the deaths of 203 of the 389 sailors on board.

Oil and water are known not to mix well, but mix they did on that occasion, and in more ways than one.

Phillips, who was a victim of the harsh racial divide while growing up in the American south in the 1920s and ’30s, became the U.S. navy’s first African-American sonar technician.

He later joined the American civil rights movement and marched alongside Martin Luther King.

Chafe said he originally learned of Phillips’ story in 1996 through a visual artist friend who had painted an image of a woman washing oil off a man.

“I was just so immediately blown away and moved by that story, and it was always in the back of my mind,” Chafe said.

About four years ago, he and Keiley decided the time was right and Chafe began to conduct research, starting first with Cassie Brown’s “Standing into Danger,” which details the circumstances of the shipwrecks and rescue effort.

He sought out a radio documentary on the subject, and spoke to Phillips himself on a few brief occasions. Chafe also visited St. Lawrence and talked to people involved in the rescue.

He also researched background material documenting the African-American experience in the navy, as well as another period in the play detailing race riots in the Boston area, where Philips lived with his family in the 1970s.

The result is a two-act play that Chafe explained begins with the shipwreck, moves to the rescue effort in St. Lawrence, ties in the community’s mining tradition and the illnesses resulting from it, and touches on the struggles to desegregate Boston schools in the mid-1970s.

Chafe said Artistic Fraud has assembled a top-notch, 10-actor cast that, in addition to performers from this province, includes talent from Halifax, Toronto and Montreal.

Recently, those actors started preparing for a planned 12-day run at the LSPU Hall in St. John’s, beginning Feb. 9.

Music features prominently in the production, Chafe said, which means the actors have to be versatile.

“I think it’s an amazing bunch of people,” he said of the cast.

Two actors have been tapped to play Phillips. Ryan Field, an accomplished actor from Toronto, will play him as a young man. Jeremiah Sparks, who Chafe described as “one of the finest actors in the country,” takes over for the production’s second act set in Boston, playing Phillips later in life.

Tickets for the approximately two-hour-long play are selling fast, Chafe said.

He said Artistic Fraud productions have been gaining increased national exposure in recent years, and he hopes to take “Oil and Water” on the road.

“(Artistic Fraud plays) tend to be very complex and expensive things to put together,” he said.

“So it’s always our goal to travel the work and we’ve had great success with that. The last two shows we’ve had have travelled across the country. It’s certainly our hope with this that the show will travel.”

Chafe isn’t sure if Phillips will be able to see “Oil and Water,” but said the company hasn’t ruled out bringing the show to him at some point.

Chafe also didn’t dismiss the idea of taking the production to the Burin Peninsula, but pointed out that such a venture would require a fully functional theatre.

“Our goal all along with this show has been to honour Mr. Phillips and to honour the community of St. Lawrence, in particular the families and friends of those men who risked their lives that day,” Chafe said.

“It would mean a tremendous amount for us for those people to see it, so I never say never, because you never know.”

The Southern Gazette

Geographic location: Marystown, Boston, U.S. Toronto Halifax

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