Colour blind coast

Oil & Water details finer moments in our country’s history

The impetus for Robert Chafe’s Oil & Water — playing in Calgary as part of the Magnetic North Theatre Festival and presented by Newfoundland’s Artistic Fraud — was a painting the award-winning playwright saw some 15 years ago.

“[The artist] was painting a canvas of men stained with dirt and women washing them” recalls Chafe who also serves as Artistic Fraud’s artistic associate.

After conversing with the painter Chafe discovered the image represented the aftermath of the shipwreck of the USS Truxtun off of Newfoundland’s coast in 1942.

While most Canadians are likely unaware a shipwreck even took place Chafe says the story is legendary amongst Newfoundlanders.

The artist also recounted a brief anecdote about a black sailor who survived the wreck and whose experience in Newfoundland changed his outlook on life forever.

“Myself and (Artistic Fraud artistic director) Jillian Keiley were struck by it. But the story sat for a long time because we couldn’t find any information on it” Chafe says.

Books written on the disaster of the USS Truxtun didn’t mention this black survivor. Even Memorial University’s Centre for Newfoundland Studies couldn’t shed much light on the story.

Things changed however around 2005 when Chafe received a call telling him that the survivor — one Lanier Phillips — would be coming to Newfoundland to share his experiences.

Finally Chafe had a name and some information to work with: Phillips was born in Georgia and grew up surrounded by the brutal reality of segregation; he joined the U.S. Navy to escape some of the worst aspects of living in the South.

The Navy wasn’t much better though. As a black man the only position open to Phillips was that of mess attendant. Essentially he was a servant aboard the ship. He was not allowed in the officers’ mess and had to eat standing up.

Phillips was aboard the USS Truxtun a destroyer that escorted supply ships across the North Atlantic which was caught in the midst of a terrible storm in February of 1942. It ran aground off the coast of Newfoundland. Of the 156 men aboard only 46 survived.

Based upon his experiences in the American South he was not prepared for the egalitarian treatment he received from the citizens of St. Lawrence — the Newfoundland town that housed the sailors until the U.S. Navy could retrieve them.

“He spoke very passionately about the care he received from Violet Pike the housewife who took him in…. This was a level of care unprecedented for him from a white person. He didn’t even think that was possible not in the realm of his waking life” says Chafe. “The experience sent him on a path of introspection and changed his view on racism… that racism was a disease of the mind that one needs to be healed from and this experience healed him.”

In fact Phillips pursued a life of civil-rights activism and went on to become the U.S. Navy’s first black sonar technician.

In charting both the story of Phillips and the Newfoundlanders who helped him Oil & Water includes a sound design of African–American spirituals and Newfoundland folk music.

“It’s quite a feat to take a traditional Newfoundland fiddle song and lay it over ‘Wade in the Water.’ To make those two things work musically took some doing” Chafe says crediting Andrew Craig and Kellie Walsh for their composition and sound design work.

While songs play an important role in the play Chafe says it’s not a musical.

“If you stripped the music away from the show it would be a very naturalistic piece” Chafe says comparing the play’s music to a film score.

As for Phillips Chafe was finally able to meet him in February of this year on the occasion of the shipwreck’s 70th anniversary.

“He was an incredibly rich person” Chafe says.

Sadly Phillips died one month later but his story — and the lessons one can learn from it — will live on.