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Oil and Water is brilliant theatre

By Alejandro Bustos on May 19, 2014



Several good plays have come to Ottawa during the 2013-14 season.  After watching the fantastic production of Oil and Water, however, a strong argument can be made that this work is the best performance to hit a local stage this season.

Currently playing at the National Arts Centre, this wonderful play tells the story of Lanier Phillips, an African American man who was born in 1923 and grew up in the southern United States. Experiencing first-hand the horrors of segregation, he witnessed the evils of the Ku Klux Klan and developed a deep distrust of white people.

Phillips joined the U.S. Navy to escape segregation, but to his dismay found that the Navy wasn’t equal at all.  His life was completely changed, however, on February 18, 1942, when the ship he was sailing on – the USS Truxtun – got caught up in a vicious winter storm and crashed off the southeast coast of Newfoundland.  Another ship, the USS Pollux, also crashed.

More than 200 sailors died that day, but Phillips, who was on a lifeboat that capsized on shore, survived.  A group off residents from nearby St. Lawrence, Newfoundland collected the survivors and washed off the oil that covered the men’s skin.  When the local inhabitants realised that Phillips’ skin could not be scrubbed white, he assumed that they would treat him unkindly.

But to his profound surprise, the locals continued to treat him with kindness, and a women named Violet Pike invited him to her home where she took care of him with food, shelter and blankets.  The experience forever changed Phillips, as it allowed him to realise the truly unnatural state of racism, and that a better world was possible.

Phillips’ experience led him to fight for civil rights, which included marching alongside Martin Luther King.

Photo courtesy of the National Arts Centre.

This remarkable tale is told in Oil and Water by juxtaposing two different periods in time.  The first is in 1974, when Phillips  – then living in Boston – watches his daughter deal with the deadly race riots that erupted when the city tried to integrate black and white students.  Reacting to the terror of these events, his daughter declares that she hates the “white devils.”

The second period is February 1942, which recounts the crash of the USS Truxtun and the kindness of the people in St. Lawrence.

As these two events are contrasted, Phillips tells his daughter about his moving experience in Newfoundland, and how despite the horrors of what was then taking place in Boston, he knew in his heart that a new world was possible because he had seen it first-hand.

Produced by the Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland and directed by Jillian Keiley, who is also the artistic director of the NAC English Theatre, Oil and Water is brilliant.  (Playwright Robert Chafe truly deserves a standing ovation).

There are so many things to love about this work.  For one, the oodles of talent among the actors is highly impressive.  While the entire cast is quite strong, the acting of Anderson Ryan Allen as a young Lanier Phillips, Neema Bickersteth as the ghost of Phillips’ grandmother and Petrina Bromley as Violet Pike particularly stuck out for me.

The writing, meanwhile, is excellent, as Chafe is able to transform a fairly minimal set into a highly captivating story.


Photo courtesy of Neptune Theatre

Then there are the beautiful hymns by composer Andrew Craig, which combine Southern Gospel and Newfoundland Folk into a haunting and beautiful musical blend.

Sometimes a work of art can touch you in such a profound way that it makes you see the world in a different way.  This play did that for me, as I left the theatre with my mind ablaze with a series of thoughts.

After watching Oil and Water I was proud to be Canadian, as I learned about the kindness of the people of Newfoundland.  It also made me proud to be from Ottawa, as it showed how the NAC can present truly magnificent work.  But most importantly, it reminded me how humans can be powerful agents of change, and that creating a better world is possible.

Oil and Water is at the National Arts Centre until May 31.  Tickets start at $23.