Nicole Brook’s Obeah Opera is described as a “Nicole Brooks vision” which is probably a good starting point for an opera this isn’t. It’s an a capella stage piece with an all female cast, composed and taught to the performers orally and performed with mikes. If it resembles anything it’s a musical but really it’s a unique concept. It’s also clearly rooted in the oral traditions of African-American slavery and a kind of idealisation of the world they had left behind. For example, every slave women is a powerful sorceress from a long lineage rather as every Welshman is a gentleman who can trace his ancestry from King Arthur. It’s a musically rich and powerful tradition and this forms much the most effective element in the piece, especially as it’s where Brooks’ own talents and energy are most focussed.
This element of slave women as powerful magicians and healers is then projected onto the Salem witch scare of 1691-2. It’s not an obvious fit. The “witches” accused, tried and executed in that, one of the last outbreaks of witch hysteria in New England, were with one exception, white. The exception is Tituba, the name of Brooks’ character in Obeah Opera. She was the first to confess but in exactly the terms demanded by Puritan divines; i.e. no hint of traditional African magic, religion or healing. She also wasn’t African. Carol Karlsen(1) suggest she was a Carib, other sources suggest one of the New England native peoples. Does this matter any more than, say, Puccini’s China bears little relationship to any actual historic China? I think so. Not because it’s “wrong” in some sense to place Brooks’ story in colonial New England but because I think it goes some way to explaining why it doesn’t really work. It feels like Brooks is fixated on a central idea that however much she manipulates the story around it just doesn’t quite fit. Anybody who has ever had a great idea for a story that just doesn’t quite work will know this feeling.
To be fair the portrayal of the Puritans has come a long way since I saw this piece in workshop last year. The musical idiom is more appropriate and they get moments when they seem more like people and less like cartoon characters. That said there are truly cringeworthy moments. There’s a passage towards the end when the witches have been condemned where the Puritans march around singing “A-gibetting we will go” (curiously with a hard “g”). It’s truly a WTF moment. And, unfortunately, it’s not the only one. To make matters worse, fleshing out the Puritans has also substantially lengthened the piece.
The central “African” elements of the piece are done very well though. Brooks is powerful as is Singing Sandra as The Elder, the central cult god/spirit or whatever. They get great support from the high energy singing and dancing of Saphire Demitro, Nickeshia Garrick, Debbie Nicholls-Skerrit, Karen Burthwright, Divine Brown and Melissa Noventa.
Coming out of this I felt curiously like I did after Apocalypsis (though less ear battered). It had a similar combination of some good ideas, some powerful moments, at times utterly banal text and some things that just plain perplexed all, apparently, justified because the central creative force has an official pedestal. It’s not a combination that works especially well for me but funders with deep pockets seem to lap it up.
Obeah Opera is being staged at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts nas part of Panamania. There are two more performances today and tomorrow.
FN1: Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, New York, 1987