Newfoundland's Artistic Fraud brings the true story of Lanier Phillips, a black Navy man saved by the women of the coastal town of St. Lawrence, to Toronto in a well-intentioned but uneven production.
As we saw last month in Mikaela Dyke’s Dying Hard, for many years life in St. Lawrence, Newfoundland, wasn’t easy. While the men working in the mines developed silicosis and lung cancer, which would later virtually kill off the community, the women picked up duties around the home amid harsh weather and isolated lives.
On now at Factory Theatre, Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland’s Oil and Water by Robert Chafe smooths the brogue and rough exteriors of these residents to reveal the kindness underneath. In February 1942, the U.S. marine destroyer USS Truxtun went down off the coast of St. Lawrence, killing 203 people in the icy water. One of the few survivors, and the only one with black skin, was Lanier Phillips. Though the people of St. Lawrence had never seen a black person before (at first they even tried to scrub the colour off, thinking it was oil), they treated him without prejudice. This openness famously changed Phillips, who had put up with the racism of the southern United States and who would eventually become a civil rights leader and the U.S. Navy’s first black sonar technician.
This isn’t well-conceived drama—it’s all true. Phillips, whose story is now Newfoundland lore, died this past March as an honorary member of the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Director Jillian Keiley will soon take up the job of artistic director of English theatre at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, and her vision for Oil and Water shows why. It’s a layered production, continuously moving from the deck of the USS Truxton, to life in St. Lawrence at the same moment, to the integrated school riots in ’70s Boston, where Phillips eventually settled. Through this, we see the “Before” (Ryan Allen) and “After” (Jeremiah Sparks) version of Phillips as he reacts to the racism around him, whether from a fellow white sailor Bergeron (Clint Butler), or when his own daughter Vonzia (Starr Domingue) is injured by white townspeople stoning her schoolbus. The fragmented script suffers from a lack of coherency in the first act, but Keiley establishes unity through gorgeous Newfoundland folk and African American gospel songs, delivered by the talented cast of 10. While only a few may be involved in the action at one time, they’re all always present—watching from the sides, singing underneath one another’s lines.
Combined with Shawn Kerwin’s imaginative set, including a clever boat that’s a cross between two ladders and a rocking chair, Oil and Water doesn’t disappoint visually. Neither do most of the performances, especially Petrina Bromley as Violet Pike, Phillips’ fated caretaker, who gives her character a hilarious and touching balance of edge and heart, and a whole lot of Canadian dry humour.
Unfortunately, we weren’t so enamoured of the script’s structure. Act one is a disjointed combination of scenes, and takes a little too much time setting up the context. The second act sparks all the action—Vonzia experiences an traumatic bus ride, which prompts her father to explain his story in St. Lawrence. Until this point, there are hardly any connections to hold the scenes together. We drown in the story in act one, while the second act is a life preserver, giving us some clarity to hold onto.
And, in the end, we weren’t sure what to take away from the story. Does her father’s positive past with Newfoundlanders make Vonzia’s experience on the bus any less horrifying? Should the women and men of St. Lawrence be considered as angelic as they appear, simply because they’re isolated from the racist attitudes of larger cities miles away? Not to discredit Phillips, his accomplishments, or his story—it is worth telling, especially with Keiley’s vision and the idea of a nonlinear narrative. We just wish we were as inspired by Oil and Water as the province of Newfoundland was.