A Different Kind of Theater

Onstage with Nicole Brooks’s Obeah Opera, Part II

• October 2016

On 10 February 2016, Nicole Brooks visited Ryerson University’s Literatures of Modernity MA program to talk about her most recent creation and very first play: the critically acclaimed Obeah Opera. Brooks has been working on Obeah Opera since 2009. Over the years, she not only wrote the libretto and composed more than sixty songs for this nontraditional opera but also fashioned a very unique and Afro-centric version of the infamous story of the 1692–93 Salem witch trials. Obeah Opera developed through a number of workshop productions over the past seven years; and Brooks continues to grow the work, with the goal of bringing it to full actualization as a mainstage, commercial undertaking for mass audiences in Canada and internationally. Brooks sat down with me and my students that morning to talk about her creative process and the story behind the various iterations of the play.

Part I of this interview was published in sx salon 22

 

Hyacinth Simpson: Music is such an integral part of the work because everything—dialogue, monologue (interior and otherwise), emotions, etc.—is communicated in song. The work is billed as an opera, but it is not the traditional form of opera that we are used to seeing. Several reviewers have said that you’re expanding the usual idea of what opera is, that you are redefining opera. Does this describe what you are doing with Obeah Opera?

Nicole Brooks: Yes, we’re working with the standard definition of opera, but taking the form in a direction it hasn’t been taken before. The opera world here [in Canada] was a bit shocked too, and I got a lot of interviews from people in this sector of the arts. I also got government funding from the opera section of the Ontario Arts Council—after proving my point that the play is indeed an opera. Some people were asking how the work could be an opera and a piece for the theater at the same time. They felt it had to be either one or the other. I had to point out that Les Miserable is an opera, but it’s billed as a musical. Evita is an opera, but it too is seen as a musical. So I had to ask if they were going to punish me for doing the same. When I said that to the opera director at the Ontario Arts Council, he agreed that I was right; and he was excited by what I was doing. In the definition of opera, it doesn’t say that such a work must be based in European traditional-standard music. It just says all sung. So yes, apparently I’m redefining opera, though I didn’t realize it at the time. But I’m saying I’m claiming that word because the people who promoted Obeah Opera at each incarnation of the work always wanted me to remove “Opera” from the title. Even the Panamania people told me that it would chase people away. They said that if audiences thought it was going to be a standard opera then they wouldn’t come out to the shows.

HS: Audiences came out in droves, though. The Panamania shows, like the Nightwood ones, were sold out.

NB: Yes. When we did the hour-long read, the one that you saw at the b current workshop production in 2011, I remember there was almost a revolt because we were going to cut it down for the sake of time. But people in the audience were like, “No! We need to see the whole thing.” And then in 2012 it was mounted as a full “working” production. If you read the history of the work [available at obeahopera.com] you’ll see that the 2012 production was an earlier version because I knew it wasn’t finished at that point. ahdri kept telling me it was fine as is, but I knew it needed more development. I guess part of it is my quest for bigger audiences and bigger music and to get what’s in my head out there for people to see and hear in the way I’ve imagined it. So I had to convince all of the funding bodies that what we were planning to do with the Panamania production was something new because it was being developed as a two-hour-plus work—the music was going to be fully actualized. That’s how I got the opera funding, because they understood this. They understood that although we wouldn’t be using an orchestra, we needed the same time that an orchestra would use to prepare the voices of twenty women to create the music and the sounds that the music demands. They saw the innovation in that and went, “Wow!”

HS: I’m now thinking that the kind of theater you are creating with Obeah Opera goes beyond the innovations you are bringing to the operatic form of performance through the different musical genres you draw on and your use of voices as instrumentation. That’s because the work is also highly choreographed. Hand clapping, foot stomping, dance, and other forms of movement are integrated with, and integral to, the storytelling and music; and all these parts work together to express a particular—more positive and empowering—vision of African diaspora spirituality.

NB: That’s still being explored. The Panamania production is the first version in which we were able to implement as much dance as we did. That was because Anthony “Prime” Guerra [choreographer and cultural consultant] put his foot down with me, and rightfully so. He insisted that a third of the cast be trained dancers. He said that every year I would bring him singers who didn’t know how to move, so we couldn’t explore the dance elements for the piece. He pointed out to me that dance is a part of our religious rituals and storytelling, that we don’t have just music and singing; and he pointed out that African plays tend to incorporate all these aspects as well. Now, looking at the work again, I think that’s what needs to be explored even more. I want more dance. I’m thinking of when Tituba enters the spirit world . . . something along the lines of swirling Dervishes because we tend to do a lot of twirls in traditional Caribbean folk and African dances and rituals. These are the movements that call in spirit. And there’s movement and dance with the Puritans too, with their do-si-doing and all of that. That’s important too. So for me, when I produce Obeah Opera again, I want to implement all these facets, because that’s what will make it out of this world fantastic. I’m claiming it—that I’ll have the amount of cash that I need to make it happen. I’m going back to the drawing board this year. It may take a little time to get the work back up; and, thinking about it, the only government funding that I didn’t ask for (but now I think it’s time) is support for dance.

HS: So you’re thinking of a stage “spectacle”—Obeah Opera not only as a staging of your retelling of the Salem trials but also as a grand performance that fills the senses?

NB: Absolutely! This is again where this play must be deemed an opera. Operas always have large casts, amazing costumes, and an epic story. This is what Obeah Opera is. At the same time, it is a musical because of its dance numbers along with the kinds of music being explored, among other things. It is a hybrid like no other. I would love this work to be elevated to the level of The Lion King, The Color Purple, or Fela! on Broadway. I refer to those specific works as direct influences on what I want to create here in Canada. I distinctly remember my feeling after experiencing Fela! on Broadway. This is where I had my “Ah-ha” moment. I realized that I too was destined to create a work (or works) on this level for mass audiences to experience.

HS: That spectacular mode is already evident in the way Obeah Opera emphasizes theater as ritual and ritual as theater. When the actors playing the Shapeshifters appeared onstage as orishas, at times it felt like all the singing and chanting and dancing had called up the spirits right into the theater space!

NB: Absolutely! I remember saying in rehearsals, “You’d better not rehearse it too much because They are going to come.” It has happened. In one of the 2011 rehearsals, ahdri kept telling us to do the Shango section over again, and I said, “ahdri, if you keep calling Shango, Shango is going to come.” And lo and behold Shango came. People started feeling fearful: “I don’t want to do dis devil ting!” What happens to the person who is embodying the spirit? But I told them that we were doing ritual. This is what we are doing.

HS: I was talking to Anthony Guerra about the dance that the actors do and the costumes they wear when they appear onstage as the orishas—

NB: His stage name is Prime. He goes by Prime. He’s also an orisha follower.

HS: Oh, that makes a lot of sense. He was explaining to me the meaning of the different colors of the aprons and masks worn by the actors playing the orishas: purple for Air; green for Earth; blue for Water; and red for Fire. He said they bring messages from the four corners of the earth; and he also explained why the actors wear white dresses and head wraps under the aprons and masks. His explanation made me think that the “I AM” song, like “Di Moon Song” and “In My Mother’s Name,” is also really important to the work’s overall message. Am I right? If I’m remembering correctly, bits of “I AM” are sung at other moments in the play, but the audience gets a full recital when the black women of Salem—dressed in the colors of the orishas—come together with the Elder in one of the scenes to sing it as they chant and dance in the spirits.

NB: Here’s a bit of background information on that song: I based it on Nina Simone’s “Four Women.” People don’t believe me when I tell them this, but it is the truth, although of course I didn’t copy the song per se. Every song in Obeah Opera actually has a root or an influence in either a genre or concept. The work is not like a jazz opera or rock opera, which would commit the play to one genre of music. In Obeah Opera there are all these different musical genres showcased throughout. I think this is where the beauty lies in the work. I deliberately listened to different kinds of music to get a better sense of how to embody in music each section of the play and the message I wanted to articulate. So Nina Simone was my foundation for that song. The “I AM” suite is a ballad with four verses sung by each main slave woman, including Tituba, who has a verse in which she declares who she is. Each verse is followed by a traditional chant that calls up particular gods or goddesses to support the women. The dance that they do is a possession ritual, but it’s not the bugga, bugga, bugga you see coming out of Hollywood. In the trance that the dance brings on, you are hearing the spirits speak. In fact, it can be considered a type of lullaby as well. You’re hearing the Holy Spirit or that spirit voice saying, “This is who you are; this is where you come from.”

Obeah Opera --Scene from Nightwood Theatre Production, September 2014. Photograph by Cylla von Tiedemann.jpg

Image 1: Obeah Opera. Scene from Nightwood Theatre Production, September 2014. Photograph by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Jennifer Fraser [student]: You mentioned that there are other types of musical theater and opera that exist outside of traditional operatic settings, and obviously Obeah Opera is a very different kind of opera. Do you think that maybe in its ultimate incarnation you’d want Obeah Opera to be staged with something like the Canadian Opera Company as a grand production?

NB: COC didn’t take me on simply because . . . How I understood their explanation is that it was more a union thing, hence not making Obeah Opera a good fit for them. I didn’t need an orchestra, so I wasn’t going to be making use of their infrastructure.

HS: Black musical traditions have very strong acapella roots, wouldn’t you say? So I’m thinking that keeping Obeah Opera’s music instrument free ties in with the fact that the story is being told from the perspective of black people and also that black musical forms influence a lot of the music in the work. Not to mention that acapella renditions have a long association with religious worship, and Obeah Opera is not only based on a story about religious conflict but is itself about recuperating African diasporic spiritual meanings.

NB: Well, some traditionalists—black spiritualists and Obeah traditionalists—were upset because there was no use of the drum. Usually the drum is very much a part of the rituals as well. My response to that is, “So when they burned our drums and lynched us for having these drums, what did we then do to keep our traditions alive, to call on spirit?”

Courtney Mahrt [student]: Use the body.

NB: Yes, exactly! All the sounds we can make with our feet, by clapping, through breathing even. That’s when I learned about dubtion. That’s how they created rhythm; and I said, “Well then, that’s what we are doing. We are paying homage, because when the slaves couldn’t drum in the middle of the night when they had to hide, they used their bodies.” Even the heartbeat is a drum. And that’s my base for a lot of the music creation.

HS: One other thing I’d like to talk about is that you expanded the Puritans’ roles from the Nightwood to the Panamania production quite a bit—Abigail’s, for example.

NB: Now here’s the thing. Every time the work gets produced, and every time it gets into the hands of somebody else, it’s interesting to hear what they demand. Take Nightwood. Nightwood Theatre has been around for thirty-five years; it’s a theater company for women by women that has a mandate for diversity. They had just finished the Penelopiad [in 2013], which was a big production for them, and they thought Obeah Opera was perfect for what they wanted to do in 2014. When they read the script that I had at the time (and I thank them for all their input because they pushed me to think in new ways about what I was doing), one of their demands was that the cast be half white, half black. In the previous staging, the story was told mainly by black women. I was really big on this and it was one of the things that ahdri originally really liked about the work too. So in the earlier versions previous to Nightwood and Panamania, we—the black women actors—played both genders and races. We weren’t playing with black and white face or whatever, although I was toying with that too. I think it’s interesting. Anyway, Nightwood wanted white actors playing the Puritans for visual clarity of the story onstage. There was no argument there. For me, it was interesting that white women were sitting down with me, and I realized to some degree they were insisting that they too wanted to see themselves in the story. They told me that it made sense for the story that white women play the white parts; and then they said they knew a whole bunch of white women who could do it. That was their demand, and I said to myself, “Wow.” Djanet also asked me recently where this change in the composition of the actors came from. Hearing the backstory, she said, “Yes, but always remember who the storyteller is.”

Another thing that changed with the play coming out of the Nightwood production was that initially there was no death at the halfway point in the story. When the Nightwood people read my script, they said, “This is epic, but you need something in the story.”

HS: Betty’s death?

NB: No, they didn’t say Betty’s death at the time. They just said someone has to die, and they said to me, “Maybe Tituba casts Obeah on one of the white people, and one of the white people dies and then Obeah wins!” I said no to that. That wasn’t going to work with me at all. They were just falling back into the stereotype—the same thing of recycling stereotypical images of black people. We’re murderers. We’re this. We’re that. Whether it’s for justice or not I was getting pissed off. Well, pissed off in my mind, because I kept smiling on the outside. Then the Nightwood dramaturge, Erica Kopyto, said to me, “Well, you have to think of something.” I told her that I needed time to think about it, and I came to the conclusion that, yes, for the story arc I needed a climax. Now, for me, there’s a double climax in the piece: (1) a climax of Tituba healing Betty, and then (2) the climax of Tituba finding her own spiritual healing. That’s something I’m still trying to work out in the structure of the play.

HS: Adding Betty’s death makes for a dramatically powerful moment in the play.

NB: Yes, it does. Here’s the thing, though. I went back to them and told them I’d figured it out and to read the script, and I remember the dramaturge calling me and going, “Betty dies?!” She didn’t expect me to make that character die. The reason behind my decision to make Betty die is that I asked myself again, “What is Obeah?” It’s a healing thing. So if Betty is the only one in the town who knows Tituba healed her and she falls sick again, and she begs her mother to get Tituba to heal her—that’s the story—and the mother says, “No, let’s pray and let’s ask God to heal you,” and Betty dies? That makes sense. Betty dies because the power of Obeah wasn’t there. It was denied. They didn’t expect that.

One of the interesting things for me with the Panamania version is that I purposely had a couple of the actors play dual roles and races. Sabryn Rock, who is biracial, played Elizabeth Eldridge Parris, Reverend Samuel Parris’s wife. At one point in the play, Elizabeth takes up his song. You’ll remember that Reverend Parris rapes Tituba in one scene, and the song there is called “I’m Your Daddy Now.” It’s a tango [sings]: “Don’t you know I’m your daddy now? / And you should know that what I say goes. / Believe you me, it’s your new reality. / What I do now / Only the God above will know. / Oh yes! Undress!” The stage goes black after the rape and then Elizabeth comes and she sings the same melody and words to Tituba in their scene: “Don’t you know I’m your daddy now / And you should know that what I say goes / Believe you me, it’s your new reality . . . ” Then she stops and takes Tituba by the chin and looks in her eyes. You know, that’s what’s great about being writer and composer of, and actor in, the play at the same time. There was one moment in rehearsal when Sabryn, after taking my face as Tituba and looking into my eyes, stopped and said, “I’m having a problem here. I’m looking at Tituba as Elizabeth, and I’m trying to understand what’s going on in my consciousness.” It was Prime who said to her, “You’re looking at your mother.” She paused and then said, “Oh my God!” It was an amazing moment because her being biracial added layers to her character and to her character’s interaction with Tituba. Prime started talking about creole women and mixed women, and I went, “Ah, that’s interesting. I’m standing here as Tituba, but I’m also thinking I have to go back to the script. Look at this now. We’re dealing with the complexity of blackness.”

I was talking to Djanet Sears about this too because it was a light bulb moment. I thought it was fascinating that Reverend Parris would even have a creole wife. It made sense. I love it because it just keeps going deeper. The work is evolving in ways that I didn’t expect at all—all of these conversations, all this multilayering. But that’s the history and nature of this work.

HS: What you are doing goes far beyond color-blind casting and the tokenism that at times spurs such casting. You’re playing with the actors’ ethnicity and malleable phenotype to hint at different ways for the audience to see the characters and respond to the story.

NB: And I want to go further with it. We also had Melissa Noventa, who played one of the Puritan girls as well as a Shapeshifter. She was very sensitive when she auditioned for us because it was around the time with that thing about the NAACP and the white woman pretending to be black.

HS: Yes, the Rachel Dolezal story.

NB: Melissa wrote an e-mail right before auditioning. She wrote: “I need you to know I’m white: I’m Italian, and I study Afro-Cuban dance, and I don’t want you to think that I’m appropriating black culture.” Do you see how the signs of the times work with the play? I thought, how interesting—she was telling us that she didn’t want us to think that she was appropriating black culture, but that she studied Afro-Cuban dance and is an orisha follower. We looked at her and the fact that she not only danced very well but knew the traditional dances fairly well and we decided she would be a Shapeshifter and play both slave and Puritan roles. That’s the formula I want to now be sure to implement. I want the range of blackness in the cast and in the play.

And on the flip side, in earlier versions, to be clear, there were always at least one or two white actors. Saphire Demitro, a fantastic vocalist who ended up playing the auctioneer in the Panamania production, has been with me for a few years. She’s Italian or Portuguese. Something. Not black, but something. She previously played a main character: the role of Sarah—as a creole woman. I remember that when she wrapped her head for the role, the rest of the cast was like, “She’s one of us!” She’s a thick girl too, so we were like, “Yes!” [Everybody laughs] I found the visuals and the politics very interesting. She was accepted. She passed. She look like one of them creole women from New Orleans or someone from back home. They red just like she. So she could be in the cast.

I think I need more mixed-race, and I think I may need more Latin/Afro-Cuban, actors. I want the spectrum and range of blackness. There’s also Dana Jean Phoenix, who plays Betty. She was one of the original five (in the 2009, 2010 and 2011 versions). Big voice. Saidah Baba Talibah brought her. I remember thinking at the time, “No, man, this is a black woman thing,” because that’s where I was coming from. “Why is she here?” Then Dana opened her mouth, and I said, “Oh, I get it. Sit here.” So the basis for inclusion in the play is, Can you sing/dance/act your ass off? And can you hang with us?

Obeah Opera--b current production, February-March 2012. Photograph by Nation Cheong.jpg

Image 2: Obeah Opera. b current production, February-March 2012. Photograph by Nation Cheong.

HS: One last question, Nicole. Where does Obeah Opera go from here?

NB: What’s next? Well, I am fighting the good fight and doing my best to find a way to get the show up again and have it performed in all of its fullness and glory in Canada. That includes a twenty-plus female cast and every inch of the spectacle I have envisioned from page to the stage—that includes full dance numbers and all. Let Obeah Opera be what The Lion King was in America (and the world). Ideally, I want Canada to claim it before the rest of the world does. It seems as though the signs of the times may make an opening for this to become a reality: #oscarsowhite; #broadwaynotsowhite; our Liberal government forcing everyone to “act” on diversity. There seems to be a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, I can get this show mounted on a Stratford Festival or Luminato Festival level, then tour it regionally to include cities like Vancouver, Montreal, and even Halifax. I would love it if, on a commercial level, Mirvish mounts the new version and aids its inevitable crossover to Broadway, especially now that shows like Hamilton (diverse cast) and Eclipsed (all-black female cast) on Broadway are opening the way for this kind of show.

But truly, my heart’s desire is to have Obeah Opera’s American debut in Salem, Massachusetts, then go to Broadway. It would be wonderful to pay tribute to and honor those women on the very ground where they stood, before moving forward anywhere else internationally. And yes, of course I would love the show to be seen internationally. I think there are good markets out there beyond America, including the UK, the Caribbean, and Africa.

What can I say? For all those who have told me and keep telling me it is impossible to mount such a huge production in Canada, the spirit, the orishas, and the ancestors are beckoning me differently. I guess what I can say is, “Just watch me.” By any means necessary the work must be actualized to its fullest potential, be seen by worldwide audiences, and have a life not only on stage but be a film. I’m seeing a CD, a DVD, the play in book form along with merchandizing. I want it all, I guess. Go big or go home. The irony is that when the show does “arrive” where it needs to be, I will finally be home. As the spirit leads. Ase.

Safiyya Hosein [student]: I’m from the Caribbean, from Trinidad, and I was thinking that you could probably stage the work in the Caribbean, since you are having a hard time getting it done the way you want to here in Canada.

NB: You know, you are absolutely right. With the 2012 version, without people seeing the book or the score, there was interest from Trinidad. There was interest from South Africa, and also England. So this is what I’m saying. A lot of people are saying to me, “Stop beating your head in Canada. Go to the States. Go to Europe. Go to the Caribbean. Don’t stay here.” But I’m going to see if we can do it one more time at least here. I hope Canada does claim it first. But if it doesn’t, I am going to take the work where it needs to go and get it to the next level regardless.

HS: Thank you very, very much, Nicole, for taking time to talk to us about the amazing work you are doing with Obeah Opera. All the best as you take it to the next level. [Applause]

All lyrics from the musical score for Obeah Opera quoted in the interview above courtesy of and copyrighted by Nicole Brooks (creator, librettist, and composer).

 

Hyacinth Simpson is a professor in the English Department at Ryerson University in Toronto, where she specializes in Caribbean and postcolonial literatures.

 

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