Onstage with Nicole Brooks’s Obeah Opera, Part I
Onstage with Nicole Brooks’s Obeah Opera, Part I
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.
See Part II of this interview here.
Hyacinth Simpson: You’ve worked for many years in film and also in television. But Obeah Opera is your first foray into theater as a writer, producer, and also librettist. What motivated you to create work for the stage?
Nicole Brooks: I studied at Carleton University, where I did a combined honors in mass communication and film studies. I wrote my fourth-year thesis on “black spectatorship.” I decided for various reasons not to do my master’s at that institution—I wanted to be a creator of content, not someone who analyzes content, although it was a great foundation for me as a storyteller. I was on the wait list to study filmmaking at Columbia University, but I couldn’t afford to go. Then I got a scholarship from Humber College for their film program, where I did a specialization in directing and producing. Humber exempted me from the written component of the program, as I’d already written a thesis. So I just did all the practical courses in directing and producing. I guess you could say that’s where I got the tools for writing and producing.
I was also challenged by a close friend at the time to take my mission of sharing stories from the black diaspora from screen to stage. At first, I felt very apprehensive about taking on this challenge. I’d never written a play before, let alone an opera, and I wasn’t sure how my skills as a filmmaker would translate to the stage. But eventually my conviction about telling this story onstage overrode my fears and, dare I say, my insecurities. At the end of the day, what I embraced is the fact that I’m very committed to telling black, Caribbean, African—and I would even broaden it and say women’s—stories. So overall and ultimately, we (diverse storytellers in any medium) need to tell more of these stories. I feel immense gratitude that I’ve been afforded the privilege of telling these stories successfully in more than one medium.
Djanet Sears also encouraged me. I was in the chorus for the 2003–04 Mirvish production of her Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God. Every time we asked her when she planned to remount the play or write a new one—because being in Adventures was an amazing experience and as black performers we don’t get enough work in the theater—she would always say, “No, don’t look to me to just remount this work or do another work. Write your story.” That got me thinking along the lines of, “Ok. I guess there is an obvious void, not only in film and television but also in theater. How do we create the work?” I knew I couldn’t audition for Anne of Green Gables. So I’ve been very committed, whatever the art form, to telling our stories and getting them out there.
So here I am now, after the Panamania production [in 2015] of Obeah Opera, pursuing the next stage of the work to have it mounted, which is proving to be the hardest thing I’ve had to do in my professional life to date. I am a producer first on this work. In my twenties, I had an amazing mentor (she is still a mentor and close friend). Her name is Claire Prieto and she’s a pioneer of black Canadian filmmaking. Claire told me that I’m very creative, but that I’m also very good at budgets and organizing. She encouraged me early in my career to put more emphasis on my producing skills than my creative skills simply because there are so few producers of color. If we don’t have producers, who will push the work? I thanked her for that guidance recently. I produced Obeah Opera myself. I went and found the money needed for various things; and then I relied on producers for hire for the execution while I concentrated on finishing the other stuff for the play.
HS: In Obeah Opera you’ve taken on the well-known story of the Salem witch trials, but you’ve departed from canon—both the historical documents and famous re-imaginings like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible—in some very important ways. Perhaps most significant, in Obeah Opera we see seventeenth-century North American Puritanism and the trials themselves from Tituba’s perspective. Your Tituba, like Maryse Condé’s protagonist in I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem, is no longer a marginal player. The slave woman from the Caribbean becomes the central figure, the heroine, in the story. Why the Salem witch trials? What was your purpose in taking on this more-or-less well-known piece of American history?
NB: I knew I wanted the play to be about the Salem witch trials. Ok, without taking a complete left turn, part of it—the spark of the idea—was that someone called me a witch. I was producing a series for VisionTV and I was also investigating my spirituality at the time. The person came into my room, saw a candle burning along with incense and water, and said, “You’re a witch.” After that, there was a rumor on the set that I was a practicing witch. People began to look at me and scoff. But instead of being all like “Wha!,” my reaction was, “This is fascinating. In this day and age?” So I started to do some research and of course the Salem witch trials came up a lot. I had an experience similar to the one Condé recounts in I, Tituba; I also felt like Tituba found me—although I didn’t read the novel when I was writing the play because I didn’t want it to have any influence. I also didn’t read The Crucible until after I had finished my own play to a certain level. I started my research knowing about Tituba as “the famous One and Only.” Then, through further research, I found out there were more black women living in the town among the Puritans; and so I based each of my black women characters on a real person that existed in Salem.
HS: Mary Black, Candy . . . ?
NB: Yes, they were all there. They were accused of being witches too. But we were not included in the story. Notice I say “we” because I’m looking at ancestry. On the website for the play [obeahopera.com] I have an Ashanti proverb that says, “Until lion[esses] have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.” So we flipped it. We’re taking the most famous witch trial in North America, and we’re telling it through the vantage point of a slave. Or slaves. Everybody was fascinated by that. For me, it was a question of, What was their experience in the town like? And, understanding that slaves had to hide their practice, I also asked myself what that looked like.
HS: After watching the Nightwood production [in 2014] and then the expanded Panamania one, I got the distinct impression that while Obeah Opera is Tituba’s—or the slave women’s—story, it is equally if not more so the story of Obeah. It’s a reclaiming, a recuperating, of Obeah; and this is clear because the orishas and the Elder—characters unique to your version of the Salem story—are important players in Obeah Opera. Is this a fair assessment of what you are doing with the play?
NB: Absolutely. You are absolutely correct about me bringing Obeah to the forefront of the work. You know, people keep saying to me that the piece is finished, but I think it’s still not yet fully actualized. I love hearing your understanding of what I’m doing because most people wouldn’t understand it. I’m working with Djanet Sears right now—she’s agreed to be my dramaturge in this next phase—and she said that the goal is for everyone to understand Obeah. When my mom first saw the piece she said, “That’s not the Obeah I know.” And I said, “That’s the point.” We are taking a word that has a negative connotation and we are reclaiming its power. One of the questions that drove my creation of the work was, “Before we were taken as slaves, whom did we call God?” In the way I’ve imagined it, the orishas actually represent angels. Each orisha in the piece also represents a different Caribbean religion. In Haitian Vodun, instead of calling them orishas, they call them loas. I looked at the various African-based religions in the Caribbean and saw the connections, the similarities. I saw it as all these rivers flowing into and from the same ocean. That’s why I decided to make it so each orisha in the play represents a different Caribbean religion.
The other thing that is in my script, but financially we haven’t been able to do, is that “Haven/Heaven,” or the spiritual realm that Tituba accesses, is supposed to look and feel like carnival with the moku jumbi and all those figures from traditional Caribbean carnival appearing on the stage. I’d written it all in; it’s just that I can’t afford to do it. Even the Puritan main characters represent an orisha on a lower vibrational level, as there is no evil in orisha. The entire piece is not only a cultural commentary per se; it is also a spiritual one. Moreover, each character in the play represents a carnival character. This obviously adds to the complexity of the piece, but trust me, it is all there. Obeah Opera represents Caribbean culture on so many levels. But to fully actualize my complete vision for the play, I’ll need a handsome budget. I don’t have that kind of money, at least not yet. I need a Lion King budget.
HS: The expanded version of the play that we saw during Panamania really brought Obeah—as representative of African diaspora spirituality—center stage. Tituba, the other black women, and the Elder call on Legba, Oshun, Shango, Oya, etc., for healing, insight, power, and strength to persevere in the face of oppression. As well, the orishas were physically embodied onstage by some of the actors. The Elder’s role as the ancestor and as Tituba’s conduit to the realm of the gods and spirits was also substantially developed in the Panamania production. The actor who played the Elder was terrific in giving the audience a sense of the majesty and power of that spirit world.
NB: That’s Singing Sandra. She came straight from Trinidad and Tobago, and she is the only woman to get the reigning monarch twice in the history of Calypso. I met her . . . and that’s a whole other story. But when I met her, I said to myself, “The Elder is living.” She has a presence that MaComere Fifi [who played the Elder in the Nightwood and the 2012 b current / Theatre Archipelago productions] did not. And she’s also of the orisha faith and practice. So she actually aided a lot, and she became another person beyond the choreographer and cultural consultant that I consulted about how to incorporate the orisha worldview correctly into the play. I’m learning through research and my own spiritual journey; however, some of the stuff just comes to me intuitively, and she would explain things that I didn’t understand, saying, “Yes, you’re right about this, but do this, and do this.” It was so rich for us to have direct teaching on the orisha practice from someone who is from that faith. It was amazing to have Singing Sandra with us through the entire Panamania production.
HS: The way you re-present Obeah on the stage changes the usual negative messages about African diaspora spirituality, doesn’t it? Or at least challenges those messages?
NB: That’s my thinking too. After the [b current / Theatre Archipelago] production that was staged at 918 Bathurst [Centre for Culture], we had to have a town hall meeting. Oh my god, you want to see a whole bunch of Caribbean folk coming just to talk! But it was good. They were angry. We were hearing about people ripping down the Obeah Opera promotional posters, saying, “Is Devil tings dis,” because the Caribbean community doesn’t want us to use the word Obeah. They see it as demonic.
Even my mom wouldn’t tell her friends to come. She said, “Look, I can’t tell my church community that you wrote about Obeah.” It was in the news, so they were going to know anyway. But she was too embarrassed to invite her church friends to come see the work because it’s called Obeah Opera. Wouldn’t happen. And people were yelling. We had a panel discussion and people were arguing, “You’re saying voodoo is right and it’s not right!” My response to that was, “I’m not saying it’s right or wrong. I’m saying it is.” I said in all spiritualities, in all religions, there’s good and bad, no? But we have been trained because of slavery to not value our own heritage. We were lynched when we practiced our own thing. So then it’s bad.
HS: And we’ve internalized that viewpoint . . .
NB: Yes! That’s what I said. Look how it’s affecting us even now. All I’m saying is that Christianity was not our religion when they stole us. We are going back to our ritualistic time. What were the things that the slaves hid? Because they were able to retain much of their culture. I love the innovation of slaves because they found ways to preserve their practices by keeping them hidden. All I’m doing is flipping it and saying, “Well, if it wasn’t Jesus and God that they were worshipping, who was it?” We were told that our religion was bad. It was not. So I’m showing that . . . [reflecting] Did people use Obeah for bad stuff? Absolutely. But people used Christianity for bad stuff too.
HS: The Puritans, for example.
NB: Precisely. Which is why one of the songs I wrote for the Puritans is “Blessed Salem.” It’s based on the Beatitudes [sings]: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God / Blessed are the meek, who’ve received the gospel from afar / Blessed among men, you’re welcome! / Look! Your Jerusalem! / Salem, Salem, bearers of the Cross / Salem, Salem, Light of the World / Salem, Salem,” etc., because that’s what the Puritans thought.
HS: No one in the audience could miss the irony when the Puritans sang that song onstage—especially after we had just seen them engage in brutal acts like selling other humans and raping the slave women. For me, that’s one example of the way your libretto is very effective in challenging tendencies to see African religious practices as inferior to Western ones. Some of the songs clearly identify Tituba not as a witch but as a healer, and Obeah not as black magic but as an important healing art.
NB: That’s exactly how ahdri zhina mandiela [director of the b current / Theatre Archipelago production] presented it too. In the town hall meeting that we had, I said, “All of us have grandmothers or great-grandmothers who knew what to do with the herbs. That definitely was Obeah.” In my research, I found that the Puritans used the word Obeah in their writings, but I know that’s not their word. I have literature to prove that Obeah was a well-known term at that point in history. The problem with the Puritans was that anything that was not directly of the Christian God was considered evil. So women were persecuted for midwifery, for example, because all of the people who were on the jury were doctors, lawyers. And it was men wanting this power that they didn’t want women to exercise—this women’s wisdom. So I said to the people at the town hall meeting, “Being midwives—that’s Obeah then. Knowing what teas and herbs to give to the sick—that’s Obeah. Anything that’s not affiliated with ‘God,’ that’s Obeah.” That’s the understanding I worked with because all these slave/“Obeah” women had knowledge of herbs, and healing, and birth, etc.
HS: One of my favorite songs from Obeah Opera is the “Sweet Honey” song—the one Tituba sings while she’s healing Betty. She sings it as she cradles the sick Betty in her arms and gently anoints her limbs with a healing potion. It has such a mellow, soothing vibe.
NB: I wrote it as a lullaby because Betty’s sick and Tituba’s healing her.
HS: It’s a beautiful song in itself; and in the scene it works well to dispel any notion that Obeah is something sinister.
NB: That’s the point. You have to understand that Vodun has a very bad reputation because Hollywood has turned it into something completely evil. So when I went into the Haitian community to do research for the songs, there was a lot of resistance at first because it’s a very secret-society type thing. At least, that’s what it felt like because nobody wanted to talk at first; and then those who had knowledge—it’s not recorded, it’s not written down—of these traditional songs were skeptical. They were like, “What’re you going to do with it? We’re sick and tired of people taking it and then using it for evil.” So they were really excited once they heard what I was doing and also when they saw the work onstage. I realized that the religion or the spiritual practice of Vodun that has the worst rep has the most beautiful music. The music is not only revolutionary but the softest of all the African diaspora religions. The music from Jamaican Pocomania, for example, is a lot “harder.” You know what I mean? But the Haitians . . . [their music] is so beautiful; and when I heard the music it certainly didn’t sound like hocus-pocus to me.
HS: Because it’s highly unlikely that something that’s evil and dark and ugly can inspire beautiful music.
NB: You know what I mean? There’s a book that I used as one of my references. It’s called Sacred Drums of Liberation: Religions and Music of Resistance in Africa and the Diaspora by Don C. Ohadike, with a commentary by Toylin Falola. It was the best book that I read in my research for this work, in understanding what I was trying to create. The author says that traditional music is the foundation for all our revolutionary music—to Bob Marley and beyond. It all comes from that, rhythmwise, and I went, “This is revolutionary music.”
HS: In one of the last songs that Tituba sings in Obeah Opera, she defies the Puritans’ demonization of her spiritual practice as black magic. She says something like, “If you think I’m a witch then I am,” meaning that if they call what she’s practicing witchcraft, then they seriously have to reconsider what they think is so bad about being a “witch.” Coming at the end of the play, it transforms what’s presented as Tituba’s confession of wrongdoing in the historical records into a powerful affirmation of black womanhood and black spiritual and cultural traditions.
NB: That’s one of the newer songs that I wrote and it was really telling for me. The title of the song you are talking about is “In My Mother’s Name.” The lyrics are, “So I stand / in my mother’s name / and those before her / who took on the blame / for all the daughters / who inherited the shame / for all the women who will never be the same / . . . I’m a wise woman, witch so divine and I’ll no longer hide!” It’s actually a four-verse song. We just didn’t have time to explore it in its entirety in the production, but that first verse says it all. I stand in my mother’s name for all those who came before me. For all the daughters who inherited the curse, and for all those who won’t be the same, I’m standing and I’m going to claim it. I was like, that’s the play. If I didn’t know before, that’s what it is!
The very first song I wrote was “Di Moon Song” [sings]: “Di Moon ah go call mi back a mi yahd, Obeah / Di Moon give mi healin’ in a mi hand, Obeah (repeat) / Cross di watah / Cross di sea oh / Di light shine on inna mi oh (repeat).” . . . I was listening to a lot of Jamaican traditional folk at the time. That was the first song I wrote, and it’s the staple. I call it the foundation song. Whereas “In My Mother’s Name” became the understanding of the purpose of the work, the groundation or the roots was “Di Moon Song” and understanding that the moon is going to call me back to my home. If that is the only way I can get home, that’s ok.
HS: We’ve been talking about it in a somewhat indirect manner so far, but everyone—critics, audiences—raves about the music for Obeah Opera. And it’s all sung acapella too. Beautiful melody, harmony, and rhythms and strong, expressive lyrics. A lot of the songs are influenced by Afro-diasporic musical traditions, but you also draw on a wide range of musical traditions and genres. I’ve talked to some other people who’ve seen the work, and they agree with me that the music is a large part of why Obeah Opera soars.
NB: What was shared with me years ago was that if the play was straight text it wouldn’t have been appreciated in the same manner, but the music made it palatable. I thought that was interesting to hear. So here’s the thing: I created the piece. I am the librettist, so I wrote all the words; and I wrote all the music, so I am also the composer. How I’ve written the music has evolved over time. I remember having a conversation with Andrew Craig, who now has been the musical director for the past two, three years, because I had encountered a problem: I couldn’t get the music out orally by myself or through the former musical director—I couldn’t get what was in my head out to the actors who had to sing it. In the oral tradition, music never gets written down. Andrew said to me, “Are you sure you are hearing everything?” I don’t want to liken myself to Beethoven, but, yes, I hear all these parts and all the other stuff. He said, “Ok then. Record it. I’ll give you a device that lets you go up to eight parts and you sing every part. Can you do that?” I said absolutely. That’s how we built this version. I created guide tracks for every single song for the piece; and yes, I sang every part for every song. It was a lot of work, but it was such a relief to finally be able to share with the world exactly what was “downloaded” to me.
Audrey Wright [student]: How long did it, specifically the libretto part, take you to write?
NB: It’s still evolving . . .
HS: How many songs are there, Nicole? Around sixty?
NB: Yes, around sixty songs are presented in this version of the play. I wrote more songs than that, but we couldn’t include them all. You need to understand that as the piece evolved, I evolved. Or as I evolved, the piece evolved. When I first had the idea to do this work, back in 2009, it started off with five women because ahdri kept asking, “Have you ever written music?” Then she said, “Ok. Write ten minutes for the  rock.paper.sistahz festival.” I said, “Ok, that’s very doable. Let’s test this out.” Then when we presented it, we got a standing ovation. So then ahdri told me that I should take the work to Buddies in Bad Times Theatre [which has a mandate to promote “queer theatrical expression”]. Although I’m a straight woman, we got in (most likely due to ahdri’s recommendation). They are stricter now. Anyway, we got in. They asked for twenty minutes. This was in 2010. I thought, “Oh, they are just asking me to add ten minutes more—no problem!” So I added ten more minutes and it was nice and comfortable. Then ahdri invited the work back to b current’s 2010 rock.paper.sistahz festival, but she wanted thirty minutes. From year to year it felt nice and comfortable because it was only ten minutes of work that I was writing. We mounted the work over three nights at the festival and it was sold out each night. We had five shows at Buddies in Bad Times and got a standing ovation each night. Backstage at the festival, ahdri said to me, “Write the damn play! You’re being safe. Write it.” And then she announced onstage that b current had commissioned Obeah Opera for a workshop production in 2011. I went, “What?,” and she said, “Write the play.” That’s the full “working” production that was presented at the Bathurst Centre in 2012.
End of Part I. Part II of the interview will be published in sx salon 23.
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.