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Volume 20 Issue 1 - September 2014

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SARAH BAUMANNPanamania-Bound: Obeah RisingThere is an old adage thatsays, “If it ain’t broke don’tfix it,” but that is exactlywhat composer/lyricist NicoleBrooks did with Obeah Opera.In 2012, the hit productionearned a nomination fora Dora Mavor Moore Award forOutstanding New Musical/Opera.Nonetheless, the Obeah Opera thatwill be unveiled at NightwoodTheatre’s New GroundswellFestival (September 11 to 14) is atotally new work. “I always knewit wasn’t complete,” says Brooks.“Both the story and the music hadto evolve. The ancestors wouldn’tallow me to rest.”The ancestors Brooks referencesare the West African femalepractitioners of the ancienthealing art of obeah. Obeah women who were captured and enslavedbrought their healing practices to the Americas where the pressure ofChristianity converted the concept of obeah into an evil force. Eventoday, some superstitious people from the Caribbean fear the verysound of the word. When Weyni Mengesha, the director of the newversion, asked each member of the cast to bring one fact about obeahto the first day of rehearsals, over half cited negative connotations.One cast member said her mother even refused to talk about it.Both the old and new versions of the opera give voice specificallyto the Caribbean obeah women sold, during the 17th century, into theMassachusetts Bay colony where many were accused of witchcraftduring the Salem witch hunts. The witch trials were triggered by masshysteria on the part of white teenage girls. This is the same territorycovered by Arthur Miller in his play The Crucible, but with one bigdifference. Brooks puts the focus on the black women of Salem.Brooks became interested in the Salem witches when she began toresearch her own roots in African spirituality: “The deeper I delvedinto West African magic and healing, the more I found that every roadled back to obeah. Arthur Miller has only one black woman – Tituba– in his play, but there were other black women in Salem, a minoritywho were silenced by the white men who write history. It becameimportant to me to give these women a voice – to empower MaryBlack, Candy and Sarah, along with Tituba.”In order to put Obeah Opera back into development, Brooksworked with new music director Andrew Craig. In Canadian music,Craig is an A-list icon and a polymath. He is variously a singer, multiinstrumentalist,composer, arranger, producer, director, broadcasterand impresario. The two first got to know each other when Brookswas in the chorus and Craig was music director for Djanet Sears’The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God. Brooks and Craigformed their own company Culchahworks Arts Collective in 2013 topresent stories of the African diaspora through the broad spectrumof the performing arts. “Andrew is the best of all possible worlds,”says Brooks.Craig certainly had his work cut out for him. Brooks does not reador write music. Instead, she sings every part of every song to Craigwho uses transcription technology to create the hard copy of thevocal score. For the most complex eight-part harmony, Brooks isable to sing each melody line – no mean feat. The music for ObeahOpera is notable for two things. First, the show itself serves as a tourthrough the history of black music because Brooks embraces everystyle – African harmonies, tribal chants, gospel, blues, jazz, spirituals,R&B, folk, calypso and doo-wop, to mention but a few. The secondPAULA CITRONAndrew Craig, Nicole Brooks, Weyni Mengeshafact is that the all-female cast (inboth versions) sing a cappella.Every word is sung and the newversion, twice the length of theold, features 68 different pieces ofmusic, 80 percent of which is newmaterial. The first version featured15 women; the Groundswellproduction has a cast of 20.Brooks understood that sheneeded better-funded partnersto help take Obeah Operato the next level. With that inmind, she held a showcase in2013 at Wychwood Barns wherea small cast put on a potpourri ofmusic, movement and text fromthe show. To oversee the showcase,she hired veteran artisticproducer Nathalie Bonjour, late ofQueen of Puddings Music Theatre.This ensured a class act. Only big guns and mid-sized companieswere invited, among which was Nightwood Theatre, represented byartistic director Kelly Thornton and literary manager Erica Kopyto.Neither had seen the original production, but at the end of the showcase,Kopyto turned to Thornton and said: “I think the magic justhappened.”Nightwood is one of Canada’s most respected feminist companies,and for Thornton, Obeah Opera, with its newly discovered history ofSalem black women, was right up their alley. Brooks’ dissatisfactionwith the original Obeah Opera was the lack of a clear narrative line.In fact, in my review at the time, I called the production “a collectionof experiences,” the first act setting up the arrests of the obeah womenand the second act taking place in the holding cells of the prison.Brooks comes from the worlds of music and film, carrying on twoparallel careers, one as a jazz/church choir singer, the other producingand directing for film and television. Her weak spot is actual playwriting.“We could give her a dramaturge,” says Thornton, “to take herthrough the process.” That dramaturge was Kopyto.“Nicole wanted a story that had a beginning, middle and end,”Kopyto says. “We started on page one by building up a plot throughstoryboarding, coming up with a 20-page synopsis and characteroutlines. She had never approached writing that way. We worked onthe narrative only. The original version didn’t even have a script – justa hodgepodge of lyrics and stage directions.” The story that developedis Tituba’s journey to self-awareness and growth. She is now thecentral character, arriving on a slave ship from the Caribbean, andbeing sold into the family of Rev. Samuels who are all new characters.“Tituba has a revolutionary spirit, and the reverend thinks hecan tame her,” adds Kopyto. “Instead, she finds her true voice throughobeah. She accepts her ancestral history as the white colonials tryto quash it. The reverend’s daughter Betty and her friends see Titubaas confident and commanding.” All important in the developmentprocess was a workshop with actors just reading the lines and notsinging, in order to nail down the text of the libretto. Says Brooks:“The 2012 production was a sketch, a blueprint. Now it’s what it’ssupposed to be.”Director Mengesha is part of the dream creative team which alsoincludes music director Craig and designer Astrid Jansen. Only choreographerAnthony “Prime” Guerra is a holdover from the 2012production. Mengesha was an obvious choice because she hasexperience with large casts. (’Da Kink in My Hair had 18 peopleonstage.) She has helped Brooks in the development process by clarifyingthe narrative arc, suggesting cuts and edits and strengthening16 | September 1, 2014 – October 7, 2014

characterization. On the other hand, she has never directed an operabefore. “Text is different when it’s sung,” she points out. “It’s a newlearning curve for me. I usually have a vision in my brain when I beginrehearsals, but this production is all organic. I’m responding in thenow – alive, present and experimenting.”Brooks and Craig did the casting over a slow two-month process.Brooks, herself, is playing Tituba. The duo were looking for singingactors who could “throw down” the guts of the music. The original allblackcast has been modified to have white actors play the colonials,but it is still an all-female preserve. Gender-bending does occur,however, as the women also play all the men. “The story intriguesme,” says Mengesha. “I came to theatre because plays can speak aboutthings that matter. I can relate the hysteria of the young girls to today’sresponse to terrorism. The obeah women threatened the status quo.Obeah Opera embraces themes like questioning ideas and traditionsthat we’ve inherited.”It is important to point out that the September Groundswellproduction is also considered a workshop. As Kopyto says: “ObeahOpera is a work in progress, and the production is a snapshot ofwhere we are now.” In fact Groundswell, which features two stagedplays and six readings, is all about development. Adds Thornton: “It’snecessary to see how new plays live with an audience. A staged workshopproduction helps test drive the script. The audience feedbackis crucial.”The actual world premiere of the new Obeah Opera will take placeduring Panamania, the arts and culture arm of the Pan American/Parapan American Games in Toronto next summer. The work isone of 27 unique commissions that cover all artistic disciplines. Thecreative team sees the Groundswell staging as an important run-upto the Pan Am production. Don Shipley is the culture czar who hasprogrammed Panamania. Says Shipley: “We were particularly pleasedto invest in Obeah Opera. It’s an example of great creative collaborationwith great partners. The format is highly innovative, the historicalsubject matter is fascinating and the creative team is imaginative.Our commissioning funds are providing an opportunity for NicoleBrooks to reinvestigate the work and strengthen the narrative.” Forher part, Brooks hopes that Panamania will allow her to raise the castnumber to 25.Brooks agrees that the many styles of black music in the show makethe piece hard to define. Shipley calls it “a musical odyssey,” whileThornton’s sobriquet is “a theatrical epic.” “Obeah Opera is spectacle,”says Thornton. “It’s a gigantic financial undertaking, but Ibelieve that audiences crave spectacle. Right now Obeah Opera is asketch, but it will become an oil painting for the Pan Am Games.”(Obeah Opera runs as part of the New Groundswell Festival atDancemakers Studio, September 11 to 14 and as part of Panamania atthe Young Centre, July 20 to August 9, 2015.)HalfTonesHalfTones is The WholeNote’s regular midmonthe-letter with breaking stories, just-in listings, specialoffers, contests and much more.THE INAUGURALSEASONAfiara QuartetMaxim BernardNew Orford String QuartetSalzburg Marionette TheatreTheatre KingstonJakob KoranyiZukerman Chamber PlayersCédric TiberghienSarah ChangLes Violons du RoyMarc-André HamelinJeanine De Biquesubscriptions and tickets available@ theisabel.caISABELISABEL BADER CENTREFOR THE PERFORMING ARTSSUBSCRIBE in time for our September 16 issue in orderto have an opportunity to win a PAIR OF TICKETS to theopening night of Madama Butterfly at the CanadianOpera Company.TO SUBSCRIBE, go to find us on Facebook at and on Twitter at September 1, 2014 – October 7, 2014 | 17

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