In the spirit of Panamania, Toronto commissioned many plays to represent the cultural uniqueness of the various participating countries in the Pan Am games.
Through the high-paced rhythm stomps and vibrato vocal manipulations, Obeah Opera, created and performed by Nicole Brooks, creates a cultural sensation for all to enjoy. With its bellowing and tribal dancing, it carries its audience through time and culture into a story about the importance of one’s roots.
The production, set in Salem, follows the slave Tituba (Brooks) on her travels to the New World and her quest to connect with her Caribbean identity.
Performed by an all-female cast, Obeah Opera touches on many contemporary themes. One such theme occurs in Salem’s assimilation of Tituba into White-Protestant culture. Brooks uses the general theme of assimilation to demonstrate, with Panamania’s message of diversity, that only by remembering one’s roots and values can individuals recognize themselves.
A brilliant actualization of this message occurs in a scene where Tituba and her fellow slaves, Mary Black (Divine Brown), Candy (Karen Burthwright), and others, breaks out into a confession/dance routine, where each recounts their tribe origins and their mission to keep the memory of their roots alive. Each of the slaves has a turn to state their roots, but when it is time for Tituba to step up, she blanks out, not knowing her heritage.
Later, it is identified that Tituba actually comes from a tribe of healers and when her healing powers are needed most, they fail. The power of this theme stems from a strong message, suggesting that without belief in inner identity and roots, individuals lose their might.
An aspect I find fascinating in Obeah is the efficient use of body to establish background music. In fact, this production appeared to me as a mix of gospel music with traditional African dance. For the majority of it, the African characters perform wild movements and cries to indicate the dynamic nature of their identity.
Excellently composed and polar opposite to this, the Salem characters are very sharp, static, and monotone. To take this contrast further, the stage for the African characters' scenes is normally left empty, allowing for more movement, whereas the Salem characters' scenes are always crowded with stiff, straight columns or chairs. In fact, one other moment where the theme of assimilation occurs is when the Salem crew forces the African characters to join their blocky, strict set, almost as if to take away their freedom of movement and enslave them in the static regime.
Obeah Opera is produced in association with the Nightwood Theatre Company, which consists only of female actors. As such, females also portray men. Most notable was Janet MacEwan, depicting Rev. Samuel Parris. She creates an aura of power and control over the female characters and depicts the typical oppressive patriarch of the Salem community. This impressed me most due to the fact that an actress was capable of bringing to life such a convincing performance, despite her lack of physical appearance to aid the suspension of disbelief.
For more information on Nightwood Theatre and Obeah Opera head to www.obeahopera.com.
photo credit: Racheal McCaig