Review: OBEAH OPERA (part of Luminato)

by Lynn on June 20, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Fleck Dance Theatre, Harbourfront, Toronto, Ont.

Creator, writer, composer and performer, Nicole Brooks

Directed by Lezlie Wade

Musical director, Melanie DeMore

Choreographer, co-director, cultural consultant, Anthony ‘Prime’ Guerra

Set and costumes by Robin Fisher

Lighting by Bonnie Beecher

Sound by Emily C. Porter

Cast: Uche Ama

Nicole Brooks

Krystle Chance

Amanda DeFreitas

Saphire Demitro

Michelle Fisk

Trudy Lee Gayle

Arinea Hermans

Jamila S. Joseph

Shelly Ann McLeod

Aisha Nicholson

Debbie Nichols

Skerritt Tu Nokwe

Melissa Noventa

Dana Jean Phoenix

Michelle Polak

Tringa Rexhepi

Teisha Smith-Guthrie

Irene Torres

At last!!

Obeah Opera has been 10 years in the making and along the way I’ve seen a few incarnations of it. Now it comes to Luminato at the Fleck Dance Theatre in its full, ‘finished’ incarnation.

At the centre of it is Nicole Brooks, the stalwart creator, writer, composer and performer of the piece.  She held on in spite of comments that it was an impossible task; that it was too big a project; too diverse; too unconventional; too women centric; too controversial. But art is made by people who believe in their project and hear but ignore the nay-sayers and soldier on.

Obeah Opera is Nicole Brooks’ homage to the ancestors of the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, and in particular those from the Caribbean who were involved. “Obeah” means ‘witchcraft’ in the Caribbean. “Opera” is a play that is entirely sung.

Brooks has written songs that not only tell the stories of these women and their experiences, but also incorporates religions and music of resistance from the Caribbean, Africa and the Diaspora. Also Brooks incorporated elements of from the Caribbean such as Orisha spirituality and Carnival Arts to represent each and every character in the opera. The music is as rich as these characters’ histories.

Tituba (a proud, regal Nicole Brooks) is a Caribbean woman who is a slave to a family in Salem, Massachusetts. She has abilities to heal a sick child and for this she is looked on with suspicion. Matters get out of control when it is thought that Tituba and her fellow-women slaves are witches and are tried and hanged. The story is told through the Black woman’s voice.

All the creative elements—Robin Fisher’s simple set of benches and a huge church cross, her costumes (severe black for the New England pilgrims and colourful for the black slaves), Bonnie Beecher’s stark, moody lighting, Anthony ‘Prime’ Guerra’s  intoxicating choreography and resulting rhythms, and Lezlie Wade’s effective direction—produce a show full of compelling images, stark scenes and pulsing rhythms.

The singing by the cast of women is glorious. They stomp their feet and clap their hands in a compelling beat.  A simple sway of the hips is seductive as is a subtle flip of the Caribbean women’s voluminous skirts.

Michelle Fisk as the Captain and Doctor and Michelle Polak as the Reverend Samuel Paris and Massah Bradshaw are buttoned up, stiff and humourless. From them we learn of the endless cruelty of a white society over the black slaves. Reverend Paris also seems to have a problem with all women as he condemns them as being wanton. I thought that inclusion a bit odd, if not out of place in this narrative.

One has endless admiration for Nicole Brooks and her tenacity in seeing that her vision finally made it to the stage. Her efforts were Hurculean in creating, writing and composing the work. But I do find that perhaps after 10 years she became possessive of the piece and wouldn’t let anyone touch it or suggest judicious cutting. It needs it. Songs repeat ideas and aspects that don’t need to be repeated. Sometimes songs established ideas that are outside the main focus—Reverend Paris’ rant about all women for example. The running time listed on the ticket is 2 hours and 15 minutes. The running time when we get to the theatre is now 2 hours and 45 minutes. Should there be another incarnation of Obeah Opera I suggest that the added 30 minutes of playing time be carefully removed. After a while repetitious songs, though gloriously sung and even compelling images outlast their welcome.

Luminato presents:

Began: June 13, 2019.

Closes: June 22, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.


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