As the world mourns the passing of Maya Angelou, the NAC’s current production, Oil and Water, by Robert Chafe, seems all the more poignant. It is a compelling story and it is also true.
There are a number of plot elements that weave together but never confuse throughout the course of the play – even when they occur concurrently. In a nutshell, there is the story of Lanier Phillips, whom we see as a young man growing up in the segregated South, who tries to escape racism by joining the Navy, only to be treated worse. However, he experiences a transformation. Lanier was the only African-American survivor of the shipwrecked USS Truxton in 1942 Newfoundland. He was rescued from the sea and then cared for by Newfoundlanders and the experience forever changed him, showing him that humanity, care and decency transcend racial lines, that racism is not natural.
Later, as a father in the 1970s in Boston , he wrestles with this as he and his daughter still struggle with racism and he tries to teach her how to overcome the anger and horror, making her too realize that racism is created, not natural.
While the play looks at Lanier’s early years, it also concurrently explores life in that Newfoundland village, St Lawrence, that has little opportunity beyond mining. It looks at all of the health hazards associated with that and the strains it all places on families and couples.
At times, the play seemed to move slowly, however, it did pick up and in the end, all is good. More than good.
What is particularly remarkable are the strong female characters. In fact, it is the women who truly stand out, from Lanier’s strong-willed, yet cheeky, daughter Vonzia, to the spirit of her remarkable great grandmother Adeline who brilliantly interjects throughout the play. And then there is Violet and Ena, the two Newfoundland women who clean and nurse an oil-covered Lanier back to health.
They too are the ones whose acting stands out. It is always a delight to see Petrina Bromley on stage. She is always outstanding in every role and as Violet she does not disappoint. And while Neema Bickersteth’s Adeline does not have a large role, when she has the stage, she is riveting. Alison Woolridge’s Ena is magnificent and, as you might expect from a Newfoundlander, always funny.
One fascinating aspect is the music that has been composed for the play. It is the marriage of Southern American Gospel music and Newfoundland folk music and there is always humming in the background that is both beautiful and haunting. The singing voices are incredible and will lift you up.
While there are only 3 days left to see it, try to get to the NAC to see Oil and Water. www.nac.ca