by Lynn on April 20, 2012

in The Passionate Playgoer

Petrina Bromley as Violet; photo by Peter Bromley

The following review was broadcast on Friday, April 20, 2012 on CIUT FRIDAY MORNING 89.5 FM. OIL AND WATER plays at the Factory Theatre Mainspace until May 6.

The host was Rose Palmieri.

1) Good Friday morning. Time for some theatre talk with Lynn Slotkin our theatre critic and Passionate Playgoer. Hi Lynn. What’s on tap today.

Just one play this week.

OIL AND WATER written by Robert Chafe and produced by the wonderful theatre company called Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland.

Based on a true story of Lanier Phillips, a black man in the American Navy whose ship was on a mission in the second world war but was either hit by an iceberg or torpedoed, it’s murky. The ship went down off the Coast of Newfoundland and many died in the oily water from the ship, or from the frigid cold.

A few survived thanks to the people of St. Lawrence, Newfoundand, who braved the elements and brought them to shore. Phillips somehow swam to shore and survived. He was taken in by a couple, Violet and John. Violet tended to him, washing the oil off him. She’d never seen a black man before and thought the colour of his skin was in fact deep oil. When Phillips told her that was his skin colour, she just marvelled at the beauty of it.

That is a stunning moment in the play.

That acceptance from the whole village during Phillips’ short time there was so profound that it changed his life. He’d been used to living with racism in his native United States. Blacks were in the navy but given terrible jobs and were treated badly.

2) I understand the play has an interesting structure. Talk about that briefly.

Yes, it takes place in both 1974 in Boston during the school riots when there was an effort to integrate black and white students, and 1941 during WWII.

In the 1974 section a black man named Lanier is trying to comfort his daughter who is angry and frustrated by her new school. The teachers don’t care about the black kids and don’t put any effort into teaching them. There is obviously racial tension and she doesn’t understand why her father isn’t as angry as she is.

In the 1941 section, we are introduced to a young black sailor in the American navy named Phillips who is coping with being treated badly by the white sailors.

Lanier and Phillips are in fact the same person.

We also get a sense of the despair and worry of the people of St. Lawrence, Newfoundland in 1941, who work in the mines and are getting sick from it. John for example is obviously sick with a gut-twisting cough and trying to hide it from his no-nonsense, loving wife Violet.

Playwright Robert Chafe spends a lot of time establishing the characters in St. Lawrence and the different times in Lanier Phillips’ life. Because no matter how harsh life was for the people of St. Lawrence, Newfoundland, they forgot all that to help the people on that sinking ship.

It might be the stuff of plays, but at various times in history people have experienced that same selflessness of Newfoundlanders. (9/11).

3) How does the production bring off two time periods at the same time?

Robert Chafe’s play is poetical, lyrical and careful in developing the various stories sot that when they mesh, the juxtaposition is transformative. You can tell there are different time periods certainly by text references.

Clues are spare but they are there. The scenes from 1974 begin the play. There are references to Boston, the school and that there are problems between the black and white students. We get the sense that integration is being imposed and people don’t like it.

We know the time by the contemporary dress. In the scenes from 1941, there are text references to the war, torpedo boats and the treatment of blacks in the military, in this case the navy.

When Lanier is finally explaining to his daughter what happened to him in 1941, director Jillian Keiley has both Lanier and his daughter standing off to the side of the stage, looking on to the scenes in 1941.

He’s reliving the kindness of the people of St. Lawrence. The daughter is learning about it. Set designer Shawn Kerwin has designed an intriguing structure that suggests the navy ship; cramped sleeping quarters for the blacks etc.

It’s a pyramid shape of slats of wood on a curved base so it can rock and pitch in an angry ocean. When Phillips is swimming for his life, the structure rocks on the base and he swings back and forth inside the structure, reaching, gasping for air. Fighting for his life.

In the St. Lawrence scenes planks of wood are balanced on pails and metal tubs forming simple tables. Jillian Keiley has such a keen eye for this kind of image. It’s so simple and effective. And relationships and discoveries are as simple and as profound.

Violet washing the oil off Lanier and realizing that this dark colour underneath all that black oil, is not coming off no matter how hard she scrubs—the surprise and confusion on Petrina Bromley’s face as Violet is sweet and touching. And when Ryan Allen as Phillips tells her gently, that that is his skin colour and it won’t come off, is equally as touching.

Andrew Craig’s music speaks of the times, often painful yet exquisite. A mix of gospel and Celtic influences.

I do have some quibbles.

4) What are they?

The whole cast was microphoned. It’s a small theatre. Why do you need mics? The amplified sound was unnecessary.

The message of OIL AND WATER is that racism and bigotry are taught, just as kindness and generosity of spirit are passed on from people to people. I think of the wonderful song in SOUTH PACIFIC, about how children must be carefully taught—again taught about bigotry as well as goodness.

That is such an important lesson in this play and Robert Chafe spends a lot of time establishing it, but seems to have raced through with the scenes with Lanier’s daughter. She’s just been traumatised on her way to school by violent bigotry and I think a few more scenes for Lanier to convince her that the quiet, dignified way of living in that volatile situation is best.

It just seems rushed to me. Still I think OIL AND WATER is a powerful piece of theatre with an important story. This is theatre that engages the audience for all the best reasons.

Thanks Lynn. That’s Lynn Slotkin our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. You can read Lynn’s blog at

OIL AND WATER plays at Factory Theatre until May 6.


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