Broadcast Text Reviews: OBEAH OPERA and Summerworks

by Lynn on August 8, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

The following shows were reviewed on Friday, August 7, 2015, CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 FM; Obeah Opera at The Young Centre for the Performing Arts until Aug. 8; Summerworks plays at various venues until Aug. 16.

The host was Phil Taylor.

Good Friday morning. It’s theatre talk time with Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer.
So what’s up this week?

A really mixed bag of offerings. Continuing with the Panamania Festival—the culture and arts arm of the Pan Am Games, I’ll talk about Obeah Opera at the Young Centre for the Arts about the Salem Witch hunts.

And Summerworks opened yesterday. This is a juried 11 day festival of plays, music, dance and arts offerings.
I’m mainly interested in the theatre portion—about 30 plays in all of which I’m hoping to see about 19. This is a really busy time of year—no let up it seems.

OK, Let’s start with Obeah Opera (pronounced
O-beeah). What’s it about?

The unusual piece was conceived, written, composed and stars Nicole Brooks. It’s about a slave named Tituba. It’s believed she was brought to Salem, Massachusetts from the Caribbean on a slave ship.

In this piece she is a catalyst for the witch hunts. She was the first woman to die as a result of that horrible time. We might know about her because she was a minor character in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. But for Nicole Brooks’ purposes Tituba is front and centre.

Tituba has always seemed “other”, different, possessed of some magical something. In Salem she healed a sick young girl to the great relief of the girl and her mother. To the Puritans of Salem this was cause for concern. So rumours and innuendo begin. It is thought Tituba is a witch. How do you disprove that?

With the power held by the Puritan white slave owners
the innocent black woman, and her supporters don’t have a chance.

Why do you call this an unusual piece?

Because the whole opera is sung a capella without any musical instrument accompaniment at all. There is some dialogue but it’s mostly all sung.

Nicole Brooks conceived of the idea, wrote the lyrics and music—a mixture of Caribbean rhythms, blues, folk, gospel, traditional African. It has a huge sweep and pulse to it.

Fourteen women play all the parts including men. Nicole Brooks plays Tituba with a lot of emotion and a strong voice. The choreography by Anthony Guerra is a lively mix of Caribbean, African and other influences. The piece pulses with energy.

And what does the title Obeah Opera mean?

Well you may ask. Nicole Brooks takes almost a page and a half to thank everybody under the sun including the spirits and her influences over time but not a mention of what the title means. Thank heaven for the press release and Google.

From the press release:
“In the Caribbean, “Obeah” refers to one of the religious practices brought from West Africa by slaves. Historically, both good and bad are tangled up in Obeah – healing, mysticism, witchcraft, folk magic and Christian symbolism.” For Brooks, Obeah is not about the negative; “she embraces Obeah as a healing art.”

You say the piece pulses with energy. Does it tell the story it seems to want to tell?

I think it over-tells the story so that you’re knocked over the head with the message.

A bit of background. This piece has been work shopped, developed and re-examined over 6 years. I saw an earlier incarnation a few years ago. There have been several casts over time. Several directors have come and gone—this time we have Lezlie Wade. What hasn’t seemed to change is Nicole Brooks’ music/lyrics/songs etc. It is orchestrated/arranged to within an inch of its life. There are vocals behind songs and sometimes lyrics are drowned out.

Each singer is microphoned but that doesn’t mean we can hear everything clearly if there are all those sound effects under the singing. I found that often the same point is covered. That’s overkill.

While each actor/singer is identified in the program by the character she plays it’s not often clear in the libretto if the character is actually introduced by the character name—unless I missed it in all that singing/ underscoring.

It’s a terrific story. It’s powerful how anyone who is other has always come under scrutiny, ripe for ridicule or suspicion and this story says it in spades.

But it should have been judiciously edited. At times I thought I was being beaten down by all that music and those lyrics.

While the story is terrific, the narrative in telling it could use some tightening. In the first scene Tituba kills someone who is attaching her. Yet the next we know she is taken on a slave ship to American. How did that transition happen? Why wasn’t she ‘tried’ and killed? That should be clarified. There are a lot of songs about the inner soul of the various women, and certainly Tituba. What we need is more concrete connection and perhaps a little less mystical soul-searching.

Tituba was considered ‘other’ by the folks in Salem. Why? Was it because she wore a high head-covering? Brooks needs to clarify.

And tell us about Summerworks.

Since I’m never here for the Fringe I think Summerworks is my favourite summer theatre festival.

There is such a variety of choice from the ‘newby’ who puts on a play to the established artists in the city who want to stretch themselves. This festival has all of that.

How do you decide what to see?

I wait patiently for the thick Summerworks brochure to come out and then read the fine print, noting the story, the creator and who is in it to make a decision. Chances are if I am familiar with an actor in it or the director or writer, or even a designer, I’ll plan to see it.

Sometimes the brochure blurb sounds better than the show turns out to be. I saw a show yesterday called The Tall Building which read like a surreal world of three people trying to survive, one is a kid on his own; one is a strange woman with tears in her jeans and the other is an assassin. I found it mystifying.

What are you looking forward too over the next 11 days?

I’m looking forward to:

Beautiful Man billed as a response to violence against women in film and tv. It’s written by Erin Shields—I would run to see anything she’s written. It’s directed by Andrea Donaldson—another gifted artist. And stars Anusree Roy, Melissa D’Agostino and Ava Jane Markus.

The HUM—produced by Theatre Gargantua—I love this company. It’s a story about family, the environment, connecting.

Lac/Athabasca produced by a theatre company from New Brunswick about the effects of the oil sands on the death of fish and cancer, and the effects of a terrible train disaster on one town. I love plays that reflect our world interest me.

Like There’s No Tomorrow, created by Architect Theatre the folks in the company talked to people living along a proposed pipeline in BC. Again it’s the theatre company that will get me to see it. I love their work.

The Living is about surviving traumatic events written by Colleen Wagner—she’s the draw for me.

Stupidhead(A musical comedy) about the glamour of failure—my kind of show, written by Katherine Cullen.

That Syncing Feeling by Outside the March—they did MR. BURNS. Fantastic company. Called “A technological tandem.” I don’t know what that is but I will soon find out.

Seams—the recollections of a dying Russian Woman….

This is the tip of the Summerworks iceberg. I’ll do a roundup of the best next week.

Thanks Lynn. That’s Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. You can read Lynn’s blog at twitter @ slotkinletter.

Obeah Opera plays at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until Saturday, Aug. 8.

SummerWorks continues at various venues until Sunday, Aug. 16.

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