Obeah Opera: Review

Kate Taylor reviews Nicole Brooks Obeah Opera for The Globe and Mail.

Obeah Opera

Written by Nicole Brooks

Directed by ahdri zhina mandiela

Starring Nicole Brooks, Macomere Fifi, Joni NehRita, Saidah Baba Talibah and Saphire Demitro

At 918 Bathurst Centre in Toronto

The slave Tituba, the first person to be accused during the notorious Salem witch trials, is a hotly debated historical figure: Under duress this shadowy 17th-century woman quickly confessed to witchcraft. Was she African or a South American Indian and, whatever her ethnicity, had she come to New England from the Caribbean? If so, was she actually practising obeah, the folk magic of that region?

From that tiny historical seed, performer and composer Nicole Brooks has created Obeah Opera, an Afrocentric a cappella musical that dresses its thin narrative bones in rich musical robes.

An all-female cast, five soloists and a lively chorus of 10, act out a story in which four female healers are thrown into jail as witches. They rely entirely on song to do so, powerfully delivering a score that mixes calypso, spiritual and gospel with blues and jazz, and amply filling a church hall without benefit of any instrument other than their raised voices, stamping feet or clapping hands. It’s not only a big, enveloping sound, it’s also thematically satisfying, for the slave’s only instrument was his or her own body.

What is much less convincing is the scant storytelling which fails to delineate the characters and, in a great operatic tradition, leaves an audience dependent on program notes to follow the plot. Occasionally, Brooks’s lyrics quickly and cleverly deliver emotional information; for example, a chorus of “fever, fever, fever, witch!” with the last word pronounced as a sneeze, is a particularly effective way of telegraphing the panic and ignorance surrounding disease in an isolated community. But mainly, the songs are predictable lamentations and exhortations that lack that kind of telling detail.

When the four accused witches rise up to tell us their stories they simply repeat with minor variations the same proud claim to come from a long line of healers. There is nothing in either lyrics or performance to distinguish Mary (Saidah Baba Talibah) from Tituba (Joni NehRita) nor really from Sarah (Saphire Demitro), except that the latter is white, presumably representing the many white women who were also accused. Only Candy stands out in the quartet because she is played by Brooks herself and her blues belt produces the one solo powerful enough to make some emotional impact.

Similarly, in the role of an elder, the calypso singer Eulith Tara Woods, who goes by the stage name Macomere Fifi, seems to have been included in the action more for her lush voice and lively physical presence than for any narrative reason: She plays a generic wise woman who leads the others in song and movement.

In the end, the show, seamlessly directed by ahdri zhina mandiela, with delicious little vignettes of smug Puritans and frightened children created by the chorus, leaves a strong visual and musical impression. Yet it sends an audience home as ignorant of the nature of obeah as when it arrived.

At 918 Bathurst Centre, 918 Bathurst St. in Toronto, until March 4.

For the original report go to http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/music/obeah-opera-offers-rich-music-but-scant-story/article2351802/

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