First staged in February 2011, Robert Chafe’s "Oil and Water " has returned to the LSPU Hall after touring in Canada.
The show is a dramatic account of the stirring rescue from an icy and storm-whipped sea of a black American seaman by the name of Lanier Phillips, whose warship foundered off the Burin Peninsula during the Second World War.
The good folks of St. Lawrence had never seen a black man before, so some mutual adjustment to one another was needed, as young Phillips (Mike Payette) is cared for, while recovering from the near-fatal shipwreck, by women of
St. Laurence (Petrina Bromley and Alison Woolridge).
This narrative is complemented by two others: by the dying-hard of miners of St. Lawrence, represented by the weakness and hacking cough of one of Phillips’ rescuers, John Pike, suffering from silicosis (Jody Richardson), and by the narrative of an older Lanier Phillips (Jeremiah Sparks) back in the States, in 1974, trying to explain racial discrimination to his feisty young daughter (Starr Domingue).
Scenes from past and present intersect, explicated by the figure of Lanier’s great-great-grandmother (Neema Bickersteth), who was born into slavery.
Staging is highly imaginative, with off-line actors remaining onstage to witness the narrative and to complement it by humming and singing, starting with “Abide With Me,” sensitively rendered, with Newfoundland traditional and Afro-American gospel strains prominent throughout (music arrangement by Andrew Craig and Kellie Walsh).
The set is dominated by a triangle of two joined ladders that can rock back and forth, and by many, many buckets that supply the water of the play’s title.
Played by a strong and hugely convincing cast of experienced performers, this revised and shortened version of "Oil and Water" is crisper and faster than its predecessor. And, I think, more expressive and emotive.
The instantaneous standing ovation for the curtain call was richly merited.
Since I was unable to attend opening night, I took in the second night, on Friday, March 14, a date which I learned was the birthday of Lanier Phillips.
Directed by Jillian Keiley (now returned to her position at the National Arts Centre), the remount of Robert Chafe’s "Oil and Water" continues its run at the Hall, with closing night being Sunday, March 23. With no intermission, running time is a brisk 80 minutes or so.
Bookings for the show are heavy. If you want to see it — again or for the first time — it would be prudent to book immediately.