The power of humanity: Jillian Keiley on the true story of Oil and Water

Alison woolridge, ryan allen, mike payatte story
Alison Woolridge, Anderson Ryan Allen, Mike Payette
Alison woolrdige, neema bikersteth, jeremiah sparks story
Alison Woolridge, Neema Bickersteth, Jeremiah Sparks © Neptune Theatre
Cast of oil and water story
Oil and Water © Peter Bromley

On February 18, 1942, the USS Truxtun, along with the supply ship the USS Pollux, battered by a severe winter storm, were forced onto the rocks of the southeast coast of Newfoundland. Hundreds of men from both ships died. Among the survivors was an 18-year-old African-American serviceman by the name of Lanier Phillips.

Barely surviving the shipwreck, Phillips became the first black man to appear in St. Lawrence, Newfoundland. Long accustomed to racism back home, Lanier’s life was forever altered by the kindness and generosity of local residents.

That story lead playwright Robert Chafe and director Jillian Keiley to create Oil and Water, a compelling true story of rescue, rebirth and salvation.

The play, which Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland first premiered in St. John’s in 2011, has visited cities such as Toronto and Calgary, as well communities across Newfoundland and Labrador.  It has recently been on tour, with performances in St. John’s, Halifax, and London, ON before making its way to the National Arts Centre.

Jillian, who is now in her second season as Artistic Director of English Theatre, chose Oil and Water to close the 2013-14 season. We sat down with her to discuss the creation of the play, and the importance of this story being told on the national stage.

What are the origins of Oil and Water? What was the creative process?

Robert and I have a friend in Newfoundland, visual artist Grant Boland. Grant had a show of incredible paintings that we attended, and we were both struck by this one particular piece called “Incident at St. Lawrence,” which featured women scrubbing bilge oil off a group of men. He then told us the story of the wreck of the Truxtun, and an echo of a story from it came to mind. As he was telling this story, he pointed out the black man in the back of the painting being washed as well. That man was Lanier Phillips.

I think before Lanier Phillips spoke so beautifully about what happened to him, the story was another awful “Newfie joke” – the woman who tried to scrub the black off the black man. But Robert knew there was a thicker story there, and when he started researching the story, there was no joke behind it at all.

As luck would have it, Chris Brookes, one of Artistic Fraud’s board members, is an award-winning radio producer. Years before, he had created a wonderful radio documentary about Lanier Phillips for NPR, so Robert had immediate access to that. Ever since, we’ve been very lucky to have access to the people who were the source –or very close to the source – of all of the material and the inspirations for the piece.

The story is about Lanier Phillips, but is told not just from his point of view, but also from the perspective of the community of St. Lawrence. How important was that for the play?

Lanier Phillips spoke a great deal about what the people of St. Lawrence did for him, but Lanier, in his quiet and unsuspecting way, did great and important things for that community too, and for all of Newfoundland. As the years passed after the terrible shipwreck, St. Lawrence and the whole island went through many years of turmoil, and in many cases disrespect. When Lanier told this story publicly, it was no longer a Newfie joke, but a story of the power of humanity. The facts of the story are true: many men in St. Lawrence had given up working on the water to work in the mines. The newly opened Fluorspar mines were killing people, quietly and quickly. Violet Pike’s husband John died in his forties, as many of these miners did. It’s not a story of someone stronger reaching out and helping someone weaker. It’s the story of someone who was struggling, being helped by someone who was struggling.  

The community is also important because Lanier’s story is one of many stories from that night – The people of St. Lawrence and neighbouring Lawn raised a massive rescue effort and risked everything to save the men who made it.

The production has played a number of cities in Canada. How have audiences responded?

This is the third version of the production, and I think the best one. We did the original piece four years ago, and we have a process that allows us to come back and fix things after each tour to make it better and better. Sarah Garton Stanley, Associate Artistic Director of English Theatre at the NAC, comes to see the production at each iteration, and each time she helps us build the show into a better piece. On this most recent tour to Halifax, London, St. John’s and now Ottawa, the response has been the best yet.  I like to think that that’s our process in good working order – always trying to make it better. 

What message would you want audiences take away from the play?

I don’t know that Violet Pike ever understood fully how her act of necessity and innocence changed Lanier’s heart. But Lanier, who only died last year, understood from what happened to him that human beings are what they are taught –that what our parents and communities teach us has everything to do with whether we are ignorant or blessed with understanding. He understood that we are taught to fear others and most importantly, that we are taught what the natural order of things should be. Violet Pike taught Lanier that there is no natural order. There is no way that things are meant to be.

2013-14 was quite the season for English Theatre. How does it feel to close the season with a show this personal to you?

I’m very proud of the 13-14 Ensemble and the whole season at English Theatre. The audiences were wonderful. They had insightful feedback and really helped inform my thinking about the next season, the company, the entire NAC and the city of Ottawa.  

This particular show means a great deal to me of course, but most importantly, it adds a unique element to the season. It has a complete a cappella live underscore, it brings with it a unique staging, and it has a raw and open heart. I think it’s a perfect complement to the season we’ve had.

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