Obeah Opera is an ambitious work using music, words and dance to explore some aspects of the 17th century Salem witch trials through the eyes of enslaved African women. It’s being presented by Nightwood Theatre and Culchaworks Arts Collective as part of the New Groundswell Festival. The central character is Tituba, a traditional healer and practitioner of Obeah; a traditional religion or system of magic. The narrative takes us through the transportation of the women from Barbados to be sold in Salem and their lives as domestic servants to the pivotal point where Tituba saves the life of the sick daughter of the local minister and is accused of witchcraft. Along the way we get some very high energy action from the large cast, especially where African themes are explored. It’s an all female cast and the music is all sung a capella. This was also a workshop of a work in progress intended for the arts festival at next year’s Pan-Am games so last night did not represent the finished product.
Some things worked really well. Generally speaking, the parts dealing with the experiences, hopes and fears of the African women were very strong, especially where the action centred on Tituba, brilliantly played by the creative mind behind the whole enterprise, Nicole Brooks. Traditional music and modern dance were integrated with effective movement of the large group of slave women to produce something quite dramatic and compelling. The white people of Salem, the Puritans, were, in my opinion, less successfully realised. Maybe part of this is that I am closer to that tradition and more sensitive to its nuances but the people of Salem came across to me as closer to the inmates of a contemporary Southern megachurch than 17th English Puritans; both behaviourally and musically. For example, the minister is bribed into allowing a slave sale on a Sunday. Cotton Mather and Hugh Peter may have been, in many ways, deeply unpleasant people but they weren’t sleazy. Their music too was too often Southern Baptist schmaltz where the rich musical tradition of the Puritans could have been used to effect to heighten the gap between the two world views on display. There’s also rather too much exposition. If one has to “narrate” then I think it needs to be done artfully rather than have one of the Puritans tell us what’s happening. I’m thinking of something like the way Brecht uses the Ballad Singer in Die Dreigroschenoper. Maybe too it’s unfair to place so much emphasis on this aspect when the work is essentially about the experience of black women but I can’t help feeling that that experience would communicate even more powerfully if some of the contextual elements were sharpened up.
So, a bit of a mixed bag, which is par for the course for a workshop production, but with plenty enough that works to make it worth seeing. There are three more performances today and tomorrow. It’s playing at 9 Trinity Street in the Distillery and details and tickets are here.