'Oil and Water' a tale of two cultures

Gordon Jones gpjones@nl.rogers.com
Published on February 11, 2011
Petrina Bromley is among the 10-member cast of Oil and Water, a new play produced by Artistic Fraud.
Submitted photo

The latest play by nationally acclaimed Newfoundland playwright Robert Chafe is a tale of two cultures. The year is 1942. An American sailor serving on a U.S. destroyer is shipwrecked off the Burin Peninsula, where he is rescued and cared for by residents of St. Lawrence, the first black man to be seen by the outport Newfoundlanders. Unlike the racially segregated society from which the seaman comes, the colour-blind people of St. Lawrence treat him like a regular human being.

Action shifts between 1942, when young Lanier Phillips (Jeremiah Sparks) is hospitably treated in Newfoundland, and accounts of racist segregation and of violent riots against school integration in post-war America, filtered through the sensibilities of the older Phillips (Ryan Field) and his daughter, Vonzia (Starr Domingue — coolly performing the part with Phillips’s real daughter in the opening night audience).

The true and moving story — blending the transformation of Lanier Phillips with the dying-hard mining life of St. Lawrence — is enacted by a cast of 10 performers to the sustained accompaniment of an a capella score that fuses two musical styles — Newfoundland traditional and Afro-American gospel. “Abide with Me” and “Rock of Ages” co-exist with “Geese in the Bog,” “Grannie’s Waltz,” or “Sweet Forget Me Not.” The through-line singing and humming complements and formalizes the action, although on a few occasions the musical vocalization masks the dialogue.

You expect technical razzle-dazzle when attending an Artistic Fraud show. The stylized “Oil and Water” is no exception, generating some very striking visual and acoustic effects.

The set is provocative, yet functional. Buckets galore (water), two high ladders, from which characters watch or speak, and, stage centre, an open, metallic pyramid, on rockers, with ladders on two sides, which might be envisaged as a drilling rig (oil), and which represents the pitching of the doomed destroyer. Characters offline remain on stage watching episodes focused by lighting.

Script and storyline are touching and poignant. Language is sometimes intense, sometimes lyrical. Individual performances are of high quality: as well as the trio named above, Petrina Bromley as the crusty Violet, who thinks Lanier’s skin pigment is caused by immersion in oil, her miner husband, John, well on the way to job-related silicosis (Sean Panting), her camera-toting friend Ena (Alison Woodridge), Neema Bickersteth as Lanier’s great-grandmother, Mark Power as John’s young miner buddy, and two sailors who died in the shipwreck (Clint Butler, Edouard Fontaine).

Directed by Jillian Keiley, with music arrangement and direction by Andrew Craig and Kellie Walsh, respectively, Artistic Fraud’s stylish and ingenious production of Robert Chafe’s “Oil and Water” can be seen at the LSPU Hall until Sunday, Feb. 20, starting at 8 p.m.

Audience response to the show on opening night was rambunctious, bordering on rapturous. Including a 25-minute intermission, running time is about 100 minutes. However, unless you already have your tickets, the duration may

be immaterial: the show is reported to be sold out for the whole of its run.

So, if you like the sound of “Oil and Water,” but remain ticketless, you may have to engage in begging, borrowing, or stealing. Or praying for extra performances to be scheduled.