By Danny Sheahan and Moboluwajidide Joseph
Obeah Opera – A hypnotizingly rhythmic a capella presented at Luminato ‘19
Sitting in the Fleck Dance Theatre and surveying the set and stage, it is hard not to feel a frisson of excitement before Obeah Opera starts. Once it does however, the audience is lost to the brilliant new world the actors present to us. One in which Caribbean spirituality helps enslaved and abused women cope with their new realities of being torn away from home, and shipped off to sate the demand of the New World.
Tituba, the protagonist, and many of her fellow captives all bring gourds passed down their families, which they wear in pouches around their neck, and from which they draw strength, courage and resources.
"The Salem Witch Trials are usually seen as a white women's plight with white women witches, which is fine because they were there, but we were there as well. I also think it's timely now during the time that we're living in with the MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter, it encompasses all of that," says creator, writer and composer of Obeah Opera, Nicole Brooks.
The Salem that Nicole Brooks presents to us is one in which oppression is part and parcel of the day to day lives of these Black women, and one in which help from the Yoruba Orisha is plentiful and available. Obeah Opera is graceful in how it does not shy away from darker themes like sexual violence, slavery, racism, suicide and war, but embraces them respectfully and invites the audience to reflect on this terrible history. Nicole Brooks, the visionary behind this new work, which has taken a decade to reach its current incarnation, is as powerful as a reimagined Tituba who has control over her own destiny, and is able to inspire much needed change. A role she plays with opulent poise and absolute confidence. She's a star and she's completely unforgettable in Obeah Opera.
"Just as a woman, I think it's really easy to be a scapegoat. It's really easy for somebody to say something about you and then for that to become blown up into something that's bigger than it is, and for people to lie about it. At least we're, at this day and age, in a society where maybe we have a little bit more responsibility than that time. It's still, nevertheless, cautionary tale; it happens and it happens all the time." -Lezlie Wade, Director, Obeah Opera
Beyond the important implications, Obeah Opera has the medium with which it tells its story. Sung and danced entirely by what appears to be an all women cast, the underlying beats, which had me moving in my seat is produced entirely by the bodies of the characters. Their feet thumping in unison, hands clapping in perfect rhythm and harmonies soaring to the rafters, this is a capella done wonderfully. One of the songs posits that creation followed the beat and then the dance and then the song, a theory that is hard to refute once Obeah Opera begins.
The entire music repository of Obeah Opera is captivating, entertaining, and well written. The multitude of genres that the music switches between is incredibly refreshing to experience in real time. A scene can feature a loud song in the traditional Caribbean style, with the next pivoting to a more serious mood, as those same characters croon in a modern R&B singing style that showcases individual skill and talent to superb results. Other genres present throughout the show include soul, blues, pop, western musical theatre and traditional African music. There is no imagined better amongst the genres, they are all treated lovingly as equals.
The cast is talented and passionate in delivering a tale flush with enough grandiose style, emotion and conviction that the audience can't help but root for everyone, including the villain characters. Obeah Opera is definitely a must see for this reason alone: its technique is superb and conveys a story full of heart and passion.
"I want people to embrace women and their sexuality and beauty, because they're usually put down and that's a big theme. I also blended a lot of Orisha and carnival arts into the work, to really take on Caribbean culture and insert it into this very unique way, and not to fear Obeah, because most people do." - Nicole Brooks
*Editor’s Note: VIBE105 is the Community Media Partner of Luminato Festival 2019