Review of Nicole Brooks’ Obeah Opera (b current/Theatre Archipelago)

Obeah Opera is an astonishing piece of music theatre. Imagine 15 women with powerful voices, many well-known soloists in their own right, singing a cappella in almost every style of black music. Then layer in majestic solos and ensemble pieces rich in harmony. This just scratches the surface of the impact of Obeah Opera.

Produced by two of Toronto’s small black companies, the mesmerizing work gives voice to the black slaves from the Caribbean sold into the Massachusetts Bay colony in the 17th century where many were accused of witchcraft during the Salem witch hunts. This is the starting point for composer/ librettist Nicole Brooks, clearly a woman of many talents.

Obeah was a healing art practiced by an ancient order of, for lack of a better word, witchdoctors in West Africa. Once the African blacks were brought to the Americas, the pressure of Christianity converted the concept of obeah into an evil force. Even today, some superstitious people from the Caribbean fear the very sound of the word.

Brooks’ opera features five soloists and a Greek chorus of 10 women. The five represent the accused Obeahwomen, imprisoned for their so-called destructive influence on young white women. And can they ever sing – Joni NehRita (Tituba), Saphire Demitro (Sarah), Saidah Baba Talibah (Mary) and Brooks herself (Candy) all have magnificent “can belto” voices. The fifth character, the old woman Elder, performed by Eulith Tara Woods (also known by her calypso name Macomere Fifi), represents the ancestors. She is the spirit guide who keeps African traditions alive in the black diaspora, and her voice literally soars to the rafters during her African chants.

Obeah Opera doesn’t have a linear storyline. Rather, the opera is a collection of experiences, the first act setting the stage for the arrests, the second act taking place in the holding cells of the prison. I would have preferred not to have an intermission because it broke the spell. Perhaps Brooks and her creative team should consider this.

Brooks has given suitable music for each segment. For example, in describing how the force of obeah overtakes them, the women sing in African harmonies, like those of Ladysmith Black Mombazo. The smug Puritans are tightly operatic, while the accused women finding their own inner strength is pure gospel. There is even mélodrame when the Puritan preacher (Neema Bickersteth) speaks her accusation over a humming chorus. Other sections mirror black musical influences including blues, jazz, spirituals, R&B, folk, calypso and even doo wop. I’d buy a CD of this enticing score in a heartbeat.

Kudos must be given to musical director Tova Kardonne and her assistant Wilma Cromwell for the superb discipline of the singers. Considering they are performing on stage without a visible conductor, their synchronization is simply marvellous.

The always inventive designer Julia Tribe has built a square wooden stage with a ramp.  The ceiling is draped in torn pieces of cloth reflective of the shabby creole clothing and turbans of the women. Everything looks wonderfully period. To separate out the Puritans, the 10 chorus members have reversible shawls, which is a very clever theatrical device. By turning the shawls over, they transform creole covering to the white collar and black cape associated with Pilgrim women.

C.J. Astronomo’s simple lighting makes good use of lanterns and pin spots. The lighting beneath the wooden platform stage provides moody atmosphere. Choreographer Anthony Guerra has supplied traditional West African ritual dance steps and seductively rhythmic Caribbean movement.

Which brings us to director ahdri zhina mandiela. Hers is not an easy task. She has to manoeuvre a large cast over a narrow space while not impeding the singing which is non-stop. Mandiela has cleverly isolated the Elder from the rest by having her traverse the central aisle between the audience seating. The director’s main modus operandi is all about patterning and positioning. For example, she uses military drill formation for the march of the Puritans, and small, scattered clusters for the children supposedly made ill by the obeahwomen slaves. Her minimal but effective direction takes the line of least resistance so as not to trample on the music.

In the final analysis, this ambitious production is a triumph of music and theatre, and is not to be missed.

Obeah Opera, music and libretto by Nicole Brooks, directed by ahdri zhina mandiela, featuring Joni NehRita, Saphire Demitro, Saidah Baba Talibah, Nicole Brooks and Eulith Tara Woods (aka Macomere Fifi), 918 Bathurst Centre for Culture, Feb. 16 to Mar. 4, 2012.