When worlds collide the results don’t always have to be ugly. And this historical tale of racial acceptance has if nothing else a rather beautiful set. With metal pails and wooden planks old ladders and frayed ropes there’s an organic warmth covering the stage. There’s also this centerpiece a curious cross between a rocking horse and a folding ladder:
Taking the story of Lanier Phillips and the 1942 USS Truxton shipwreck Oil & Water is clear in its intent despite the jumping timelines and subplots. Phillips a African-American US Navy man is shipwrecked on the shores of St. Lawrence Newfoundland and rescued with welcoming arms despite being the first black person the townfolk had ever seen.
It’s a fitting show to open the country-hopping Magnetic North Theatre Festival taking a little piece of Canadiana history and propping it up in a stylish music-filled melodrama. Sure the message hammers a little too hard with lines like "We are creatures of what we are taught." The dualities are blatant but not necessarily unwelcome. Two cultures two dialects — even the scenes run parallel weaving the two narratives in and out like the musical score blending southern gospel with east coast folk.
Let’s look at the shipwreck sequence itself. Phillips and his crew being tossed around amidst the chaos on his sinking ship is intercut with Violet in Newfoundland calmly doing the laundry in the washtub. All the while the chorus in the back sings an ever-mounting a capella rendition of “Wade in the Water”.
Surely there’s nothing ugly about that now is there?