Chafe and Phillips (photo credit: Don Ellis)
Oil and Water explores the consequences of lives lived
by Robert Chafe
In February of 2011 my company, Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland, premiered my new play Oil and Water in St. John’s. The première marked the culmination of three years of research, scripting, workshopping and revisions, but truly the story of Oil and Water and its genesis stretch back for me as far as 1996. That summer myself and my collaborator, Jillian Keiley, had the occasion to spend a significant amount of social time with Newfoundland painter Grant Boland. On one trip to his studio he showed us a work in progress, a large striking canvas depicting tired, near naked men, covered in dirt being bathed by a set of angelic women, they themselves stained by their labours, their toil visible on their cheeks and aprons. One of the hallmarks of Grant’s work is its consistent narrative clarity. There was a story behind this painting, and I had to know it.
On a stormy night in February 1942 a convoy of American Naval vessels ran aground on the south coast of Newfoundland. Two of the boats sank in the ensuing hours, with a huge loss of life. The USS Truxton had wrecked a mere one hundred feet from land and a few miles from the small isolated town of St. Lawrence. The men of the town, mostly workers at a nearby Fluorspar mine, mobilized to help the survivors, collecting them as they reached shore, exhausted, frozen, and coated in the thick black bilge oil leaking from the foundering ship. One of those surviving men was Lanier Phillips. He was eighteen years old, on his second voyage since joining the navy, a private, a lowly mess attendant, and one of only four people of colour on the entire ship. He was to be the only black man to survive.
His great grand mother, a former slave herself, instilled in him a well-earned distrust of white people.
Lanier’s early life had been defined by systematic racism. He was raised in Lathonia, Georgia, just outside Atlanta. The Klan were a constant presence and threat. One of his earliest memories was seeing his elementary school torched and burned to the ground when he was seven. His great grandmother, a former slave herself, instilled in him a well-earned distrust of white people. Lanier knew when to cross the street: “A white lady best have the sidewalk to herself.”
After making the decision to reach the shore, Lanier remembers little else, until waking up in a dimly lit room. He was naked, covered only by a white bed sheet. He was being washed by two white women. Lanier, understandably terrified and struggling to process what was happening, was convinced that he must have died, that this must be heaven: the white of the sheets and the women. He was jolted back to reality by the fierce scrubbing of Violet Pike. She was determined to get the black oil off of Lanier, whom himself soon realized that in doing so she was washing an area of his arm that was already spotless. Violet Pike, a woman of little formal education (as were so many working Newfoundlanders back then), a woman of an incredibly isolated upbringing, had never seen a black man before. (cont'd)
Jeremiah Sparks as "Lanier" and Starr Domingue as "Vonzia". Photo by Peter Bromley
Lanier spent the next two days at Mrs. Pike’s house, before the Navy mobilized the withdrawal of the survivors. In the short time that he was in St. Lawrence he was treated with a level of kindness and respect he would never have suspected or believed possible from white people. The experience changed the young man, altered him profoundly. Lanier went on to fight for the right for a higher education within the Navy, eventually become its first African American sonar technician. He marched from Selma with Dr. King. Until recently he lived in a retirement home in Mississippi where he continued to tell, to anyone who will listen, the story of how he was saved in body and soul by the people of St. Lawrence, Newfoundland.
I remember it was years later when I finally made the firm decision to tell this story, to get down to the process of researching and writing it. At the time, about six or seven years ago, I thought that I would write the screenplay. It seemed like it had to be a movie to me, the size and scope of the narrative. There was a ship wreck! I simply hadn’t conceived it possible to tell this story as a play.
Lanier was a bit of a rock star, even then.
I later learned that Lanier was set to speak at the Rooms cultural centre in St. John’s. Everything seemed to be falling into place. I put on my best suit jacket, and walked over with the purpose of hearing him present and then of introducing myself and my intentions. I was foolish, and naïve. I couldn’t get near the place, the crowds. Lanier was a bit of a rock star, even then. They had added two addition talks, and those too were already sold out. To make matters worse, I was told by a friend in attendance that the very reason Lanier was in St. John’s in the first place was because local producers were well on the way to making his life story into a film.
I was crushed. I trashed the idea, beat myself up for having waited so long to act on it. A few months later I was introduced to Kerri MacDonald. She was the lucky person writing the screenplay. I learned that she had already dedicated ten years of her life to it, become personal friends with Lanier and his family, had travelled to Mississippi to meet him on several occasions. She had worked hard, had displayed a passion for the subject that even my own couldn’t match. Beyond all of this, she was kind, inclusive, just a really beautiful person. I instantly felt better. Lanier and his story were in incredibly good hands. (cont'd)
Petrina Bromley as "Violet". Photo by Peter Bromley
It was Kerri’s idea originally that I write the play version of Lanier’s life. With her, and Jill Keiley’s, encouragement I set about conceiving of a way to fit a story of this size onto a stage. Kerri gave me Lanier’s phone number, to call and pitch the idea of the play. I held on to it for months, too nervous to pick up the phone. And when I finally did, I was shaking. I still can’t adequately explain why.
Vonzia was, like her father, kind and gracious, and incredibly supportive.
I would have three short phone conversations with Lanier before setting to writing. He was kind, and polite during each one. He was excited and interested in what I would come up with. He said that he would love to see the show. When it premiered a few years later we invited him, but a current bout of bad health prevented him from flying. His daughter Vonzia, also represented in the play, flew to St. John’s in his place to see the premier performance. I have never felt so sick with nervousness. Vonzia was, like her father, kind and gracious, and incredibly supportive.
I would finally meet Lanier almost exactly a year later, in February of 2012. He was in Newfoundland for the 70th anniversary of the Truxtun disaster. On the possibility that he would make the trip, I booked my own flight from Toronto (where I am currently living and completing my masters). We first encountered each other in a highway gas station restaurant, both on our way to St. Lawrence for the festivities. He recognized my name when I introduced myself. He pushed himself to standing, held my hand in an extended handshake while we talked about when, where, how he would finally get to see Oil and Water.
He talked again about the play, told me he had watched the DVD we had sent him seven times, and that he loved it.
Two nights later, back in St. John’s, we were thrilled to welcome Lanier to a small fundraising dinner we were hosting in support of touring Oil and Water. At that dinner I got to sit and chat for an hour or so with him. Fifteen years after first hearing his story, I was finally hearing the man tell it himself. He talked again about the play, told me he had watched the DVD we had sent him seven times, and that he loved it. I have never received a better compliment in my life. I said he should come see it in person in Toronto in April. He quietly said that he would very much like that.
The story of the Truxtun and its ill fated counter part the USS Pollux had long been well documented, most famously in Cassie Brown’s book Standing into Danger. But Lanier’s story, and in particular his encounter with Violet Pike, was for many years nothing but a vague anecdote. Brown herself only mentions the incident in passing, not even naming Lanier. Chris Brookes, who himself eventually became a friend of Lanier’s and who did an excellent radio documentary about him, said that for a long time the story was regarded by many as something of a “Newfie joke.” We’ve all heard them. In Newfoundland they cast the local guy as an underdog, a wielder of common sense logic and street smarts, who, through clever turns of logic, always comes out on top. Elsewhere in Canada, the jokes painted the Newfoundlander as stupid, so dim it was a wonder he ever made it to adulthood. The story of a woman who had tried to wash the black off a black man certainly fell for some into this terrain. The full story, however, of how Violet Pike’s act of pure innocence had transformed a man, “healed him in body and soul”, as Lanier said, would only come out years later as he himself would start telling it. Lanier re-contextualized this initially very private, and now very public, moment between himself and Mrs. Pike, and in doing so, created a picture of Newfoundland and Newfoundlanders that continues to be galvanizing, much needed, and itself “healing”.
The way he saw us changed forever the way we saw ourselves.
At our dinner, Lanier expressed dismay that so much fuss was made about him, when he felt he didn’t do anything to deserve it, at least compared to what the people of St. Lawrence had done. What was, for me, inexpressible to him at the time, was how much he had done and continued to do for the province, a place much maligned in past and still often misunderstood. The way he saw us changed forever the way we saw ourselves.
Lanier passed away on March 12, 2012, only 2 days shy of his 89th birthday, and a mere three weeks after returning home from what was to be his last trip to St. Lawrence. I continue to count myself lucky to have finally met him in person then. I still feel so fortunate that as a creative team on Oil and Water we garnered his and his family’s trust and enthusiasm. Writing about real people and true stories can often feel rather abstract, a bizarre distance, be it geography or time, between writer and subject. Meeting Lanier and his family was humbling, and powerful, and will have a lasting effect on how I go about what I do in the future.