‘Oil and Water’ earns immediate standing ovation

Gordon Jones
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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.

Organizations: National Arts Centre

Geographic location: Newfoundland

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Recent comments

  • CD
    March 17, 2014 - 04:49

    "The good folks of St. Lawrence had never seen a Black man before" is not true of course, but why is this important to the mythology? The good folk of St. Lawrence only had one way to spell the town's name, now they have two. St. Laurence. My Great Uncle was from Little St. Lawrence, and had his arm broken by a Black dude in Boston while arm wrestling as a young man. The women doing the scrubbing may not have met a Black person, or arm wrestled one, but they were not in a culture totally ignorant of their existence. It is comparable to a white man, covered in lithium grease and in distress, being scrubbed in haste by a black woman expecting a black man to appear. She knows white men exist, even if she hadn't met one in person, she just wants the black man to appear. It seems important to the myth that St. Lawrence represents some kind of Atlantic TimeWarp, and not a traditional fishing, and modern mining community with knowledge of the outside world? Mr. Phillip's is a wonderful example of perseverance. He may not have been the first black man to see a real-live Newfie, but he was the first to become a U.S. Navy Sonar Operator, because of his being rescued, because of his trust in humanity and will to live. His other coloured shipmates, three Black men and one Filipino, wouldn’t go ashore, and died, rather than risk the natives.