Neema Bickersteth as Adeline and Starr Domingue as Vonzia in the 2011 run at the LSPU Hall (St. John's, NL)
ACT I Problems
Oil and Water takes its time
by Beat Rice
I am instantly curious when I hear that a play is inspired by real events and true stories. What about this story intrigued playwright Robert Chafe so much that he felt the need to translate the events for the stage? Oil and Water is inspired by the story of Lanier Phillips, the only surviving black male from a shipwreck of U.S. marines off the coast of Newfoundland in 1942. He is rescued and cared for by the people in St. Lawrence, Canadians who have never seen a person with coloured skin. We experience the majority of the events through Phillips’ older self’s reflections, although it was not consistent.
I wish it was as theatrically compelling as it was in its philosophy.
In the first act we meet ten characters in small groups. We meet Violet, Ena, and John in Newfoundland, Young Phillips and his crewmates in the marines, Phillips’ grandmother, who appears as a part of his conscience, and future Phillips and his daughter. There are short scenes between the characters who are in different places and different times. The characters and scenes are seemingly disconnected, but come together in the second, much shorter act. Even though most of the audience could have guessed this was going to happen, it still did not make for a strong first act, because it was entirely exposition. There was so much background information, but once the play was over I wondered if it was really necessary. I felt like the heart of the play lied in its compelling messages of race, and how it is something that is taught.
The story comes together once the shipwreck occurs, and Phillips encounters the people of St. Lawrence. It is said that he spent two life-changing days with his rescuers, but we never see it! The play ends with a few short scenes where we get to see Phillips interact with the Newfoundlanders. It was the most interesting and compelling part of that play; I wish we got to see what those two days were like for both parties. The play has many powerful messages, like how kindness is inherent in humans, not prejudice. I wish it was as theatrically compelling as it was in its philosophy.
There is however some fantastic use of space especially for a cast of ten. Director Jillian Keiley has the actors remain onstage even when they are not part of the scene, to remind us that they are a vital part of the story. This makes for an ensemble that works well together, especially when they sing. A capella vocals played a large role in the show. The music, written by Andrew Craig, with musical direction by Kellie Walsh, is sung behind the action and during transitions. There is a great range of voices, which made for rich harmonies and a full sound. The vocals of Jeremiah Sparks and Neema Bickersteth stood out. It was effective, for the most part, in creating an atmosphere, but the songs did not always balance out with the parts when there was text. It was sometimes hard to hear the words over the humming. There is also some very creative use of vertical space with the set having two high ladders and a giant sculptural set piece designed by Shawn Kerwin, which can transform into many settings. My attention spiked during the scenes in which there was physicality used in and around the swaying architectural set piece. Those scenes brought a new energy to the play.