Obeah Opera: Witchcraft opera wields frightening power

Trish Crawford reviews a new opera for Toronto.com.
Obeah is an ancient witchcraft practised in the Caribbean, which has the power to frighten even today.

When director ahdri zhina mandiela handed out promotional flyers for Obeah Opera on the streets of Toronto, there were people who shrank back in fear and refused to take the material.

“The content, the subject, is still taboo,” she says. “For centuries it has been, ‘don’t talk about it.’ Some people will be afraid to come.”

The fear is rooted in history — a history exposed by Obeah Opera, which is about black slaves being caught up in the Salem witch trials due to their association with the practice of Obeah.

Mandiela praised creator Nicole Brook for challenging audiences — and the other actors and theatre staff — saying the subject matter involved people looking into their past “and their baggage.”

Multi-tasker Brook wrote the story, music and libretto of Obeah Opera. And she is also one of the five singing leads. The journey from singer and filmmaker to emerging playwright began with the encouragement of mandiela, artistic director of b current Performing Arts. b current fosters the development of black artists in a wide range of areas to create original work, says mandiela, who founded the Toronto organization in 1991.

When Brook auditioned for a place in the chorus in 2009, mandiela set her on a more creative path. “I said ‘no, there is more here, much more,’ ” remembers mandiela. “I had to draw the creation that I could see, out of her.”

Although there is classical music in the opera, there is also blues, gospel, African, Caribbean and folk music and it is sung a cappella. It is in previews and then opens Feb. 22 through to March 4 at 918 Bathurst in a co-production by b current and Theatre Archipelago. Brook, who has worked mostly as a filmmaker in the past, including a 2009 movie about Ontario’s first black Lt.-Governor, Lincoln Alexander, says she considers herself “a storyteller.”

The story of the Salem trials of the 1700s was a treasure trove for Brook, who researched and found details of a small number of black slaves accused of witchcraft. The ones who confessed got to live, she says. One woman’s herbal medicine was considered so powerful that even after she was imprisoned officials allowed her out in the evening to treat the sick. This character, called the Elder, guides and watches over the characters Mary, Candy, Sarah and Tituba a little bit “like Glinda does in The Wizard of Oz.”

The opera is sung a cappella, which requires the five leads and the 10-person chorus to make all of the sounds such as wind, she says. The characters are all based in “real history,” says Brook, adding that she had to take some licence as so little was actually written about the slaves. “I had to give voice to the voiceless. They didn’t have the chance to tell their story. They were considered not important.”

b current provided Brook with an experienced musical director and dramaturge who helped her shape the piece. It is being directed by mandiela. All this assistance means the work is dramatically enhanced from the first 10-minute segment she wrote. “I was really scared. Apparently, this is the first Caribbean opera in Canada,” says Brook. “I realize the privilege that’s been given me. It is a huge responsibility to wear so many hats.”

The collaboration among the cast and crew of the opera means “I am really standing on the shoulders of elders.”

Just the Facts

What: Obeah Opera

Who: b current and Theatre Archipelago

Where: 918 Bathurst St., at Bloor.

When: Previews Feb. 16, 17, 19 at 8 p.m. Then Feb. 22-March 4, 8 p.m. Sunday, 2 p.m.

Tickets: $30, seniors and students $25, previews $15.

For the original report go to http://www.toronto.com/article/713867–new-witchcraft-opera-s-frightening-power

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