Illuminating Thoughts: Nicole Brooks on Obeah Opera

Ten years ago she was told it could never be done — it was too big, too unconventional, too diverse, too much about women — now, artist Nicole Brooks is revelling in the success of her creation, Obeah Opera

Mar 29, 2019 | BY: Nicole Brooks

Revolutionary creator Nicole Brooks shares her inspiration for Obeah Opera, the importance of purely vocal storytelling, and how she believes art can go beyond "edutainment" and give voice to the voiceless.

Tell us about the journey of you went on to get the original concept of Obeah Opera to what will be performed at Luminato in June. 
NB: Obeah Opera’s humble beginnings started in 2009 at b current’s rock.paper.sistahz festival and then later in its rAiz’n the Sun Program in 2011. A one hour version of Obeah Opera was produced by b current and Theatre Archipelago February 2012 and received a Dora Mavor Moore Award nomination in the 'Outstanding new Musical/Opera' category May 2012. In the fall of 2013, the work went back into development when Nightwood Theatre agreed to provide dramaturgical assistance and showcase a new one hour workshop production in Nightwood’s 2014 Groundswell Festival.  From there, a partnership was formed between Culchahworks Arts Collective and Nightwood Theatre with a significant commission from the Panamania Festival of the Toronto PAN AM/ParaPan American Games, where Obeah Opera would premiere a two hour version as part of the 2015 PANAMANIA.  Over the next two years Obeah Opera was back in development with the goal to mount the show with a complete twenty person diverse female cast, fully executed music, dance and design to present in 2018/2019 and with the goal to make it ‘tour ready’. Preceding the full run, Fall For Dance North Festival in October 2018 commissioned to showcase new dance numbers to a 6K audience.  Now its final incarnation, Obeah Opera has been commissioned to premiere at Luminato Festival in June 2019 with the support of the NAC – National Creation Fund, Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council and Toronto Arts Council.
Portrait of Nicole brooks on stage by Osato Erebor
How long has this work been in development? 
NB: 2019 celebrates 10 years in the making. I remember hearing that it takes 10 years to become an overnight success – here’s hoping ;).

What are some of the biggest challenges/setbacks you faced when creating this production/getting into this role/remounting this piece?
NB: From its inception, I was told that this was a piece that could not be done.  It was too big, too unconventional, too diverse, too much about women – so finding sufficient support overall has been challenging and as such, each incarnation of the piece ‘lacked’ to actualize the entire vision.  With this particular challenge, in hindsight, I am grateful because it allowed the piece throughout the years to be ‘workshopped’ similarly to how shows off Broadway test new material/works in front of various audiences and evolve as they prep for Broadway.  I have come to realize that most original Canadian works are not afforded such development time and in the end has benefitted the work tremendously, bringing it to the level of where it is now.  

What does the word ‘Obeah’ mean and how does it relate to the work? 
The word Obeah in layman terms is a Caribbean term for witchcraft.  During my research regarding the Salem witch trials I discovered the word Obeah within their publications and was surprised as Obeah is a Caribbean term not an English or American word.  This was the proof I needed that there was a Caribbean presence during the Salem Witch Trials and as I dug deeper, lo and behold with the exception of Tituba, (whose story was very limited to say the least) Caribbean women were there but their stories were ignored and never told.

If you had to summarize the story of Obeah Opera in 5 words, what would they be? 
NB: Witchhunt story by Caribbean women.

The Salem witch trials are a popular topic in art, literature and film. How does Obeah Opera interpret this time period differently?  

NB: Obeah Opera tells the story of the Salem witch trials differently than any other account as it tells the events through the vantage point and perspective of Tituba and the other Caribbean slave women who also lived in the town. Beyond the perspective the entire piece is played by an all women cast – playing the power of story telling completely from a female perspective moving completely away from accounting historical chain of events from the male/patriarchal gaze.  

Additionally it must be added that the story is completely sung a capella – thus making it an opera (a play that is entirely sung) with no support of instrumentation and being irreverent to any specific genre or time period. It is a ground-breaking dramatic work that redefines the opera form by moving away from its European classical standard and using an array of different musical genres mainly found in what is termed 'Black' music such as spirituals, blues, jazz, gospel, traditional African, Caribbean Folk, Calypso, ska, R&B and reggae. It expands the definition of opera by incorporating a variety of storytelling elements from the performing arts and uses an inter-disciplinary approach that includes traditional theatre, musical theatre, opera, dance, visual arts. Thus, It introduces a different use of language, voice and movement, ultimately changing the experience one will witness on stage.  

The ‘naked’ Voice becomes the central in its storytelling finally making HER-story center stage.

What kind of research did you have to do before writing the libretto?
 As I think on this question, I realize that I used a variety of research for this work. As this is a historical piece, the first go to was to traditionally look up and find the standard information on the Salem Witch Trails and see what came up online and then through books.  I ended up ordering various books that portrayed different accounts of the events but soon quickly realized that even though there were a variety of accounts of said events, none took on the vantage point of the Caribbean slaves. So alternatively, I researched and found (though limited) actual court documents and read through the transcribed testimonials of the slave women and began to assemble their accounts of the events that way. 

Through this research I found that the term Obeah was used in Puritan documents, solidifying the presence of the Caribbean women in the town as the word Obeah is a Caribbean term not a Puritan, American or English term – it proved to me that the Caribbean women indeed had a strong impact on the community.  

In addition to reviewing the events by consulting written research and historical documents, I had to go on a quest to learn more about Obeah in unconventional ways.  All the research done online or through various books I had obtained always illustrated Obeah in a negative light. So I began conducting interviews with various people in the Caribbean community to talk about Obeah, what it meant to them, and if Obeah in any way was a part of their lives. 

I also talked to various African Spiritual practitioners who all at first were very reluctant to speak on it but when comforted that I wanted to share all things Obeah in a positive light, they opened up and shared their knowledge with me. I should also mention that I worked and continue to work very closely with Anthony ‘Prime’ Guerra, who is not only the co-director and choreographer of this piece, but he also serves as the Cultural Consultant on this piece for years, exposing me to the world of Obeah and the world of Carnival which plays such a significant role in this storytelling. Through oral tradition, I accessed so much knowledge of what is deemed as a world of taboo or worlds that are not commonly known – it is exciting to have it now placed in this work.  

I also have to mention that tons of research also had to be poured into the different genres of music in the piece, which in this work goes hand in hand with the libretto,  and became an integral part of the research and development as well.   

Basically, in hindsight, this work cultivated me to become an unconventional historian dedicated and giving myself permission to look at a famous historical event and recount it through a different vantage point, ensuring that I infuse cultural and spiritual influences to enhance and tell the story as these women would, if given the opportunity. I have learnt how important it is to always consider who is telling the story – which in most cases are the colonizers who ensure to recount the story and place themselves as the hero. Obeah Opera places the heroine front and center, exposing herself in all her glory.  

With an all-female cast, would you classify Obeah Opera a feminist play?
NB: For ease of classification, I would say yes. However, looking at the politics of the word feminist, I am more inclined to classify the play as a womanist play (a term coined by the famous author Alice Walker) as the definition of womanist is a deeper subset of feminism. The focus of the theology is not on gender inequality, but race and class-based oppression.  

Here is a full definition by Alice Walker from her book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose:
"A black feminist or feminist of color. From the black folk expression of mothers to female children, “you acting womanish,” i.e., like a woman.  Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior.  Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered “good” for one.  Interested in grown up doings.  Acting grown up.  Being grownup.  Interchangeable with another black folk expression: “You trying to be grown.” Responsible. In charge. Serious. Also: A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women’s strength. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or nonsexually.  Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female.  Not a separatist, except periodically, for health. […]"

This is your first time using theatre to tell a story – what about theatre makes it the best form to tell the world about Tituba and her story? 
NB: To be honest, my first inclination was to tell the world about Tituba and her story through the medium of film – as a filmmaker I am committed to telling stories for the big and small screen. However, I knew that this work was a musical/opera – a genre that at the time of its inception was a hard ‘sell’. What was apparent after some analysis and research is that all great musicals had to first be a success on stage before it was adapted into a film – that was my first motivation. But in saying this, it became very clear that theatre was the best form for this story to be told as this work quickly became ‘an experience’ that is best to be taken in live.  The music and dance alone requires the live element along with the fantastical costumes and sets… film is a great way to preserve the work but theatre takes the work to the next level as it requires you to experience the show by engaging all five of your senses to really understand the depth of the work.

Why was it important to tell Tituba’s story?
 Arthur Miller’s Crucible is a prime example as to why Tituba’s story is so important. Although she was mentioned and was clearly the catalyst of the witch-hunt, her storyline was quickly dropped and the story became famously known as a white women’s plight and experience. When researching this time period, Tituba along with other black slave women, were a huge part of this history though completely dismissed.  It became my mission to give voice to the voiceless and ensure that Tituba’s story was fully accounted for and allow her story to be told.  

How does the piece relate to what’s going on in the world right now? 
In light of the #Metoo movement, Obeah Opera is an excellent artistic vehicle to go beyond edutainment by positioning itself as an empowerment campaign to inspire women with the courage to break free from the chains of limiting belief patterns, societal and political conditioning that have traditionally kept women suppressed and unable to see their true beauty, skills and power.  

Have you attended/participated in Luminato before? 
NB: No, I haven’t attended or participated in Luminato before so no favourite memory that I can share but I am completely excited for this opportunity and experience.  I learned about Luminato through a colleague and dear friend Nathalie Bonjour who eventually introduced me to Naomi Campbell (Luminato's artistic director), who became a dear advocate of Obeah Opera.  I’m happy to be part of Naomi’s inaugural year of vision for the festival.

Why did you want to present your work at Luminato?
NB: Luminato festival is known as one of the preeminent international arts festivals in North America and it quickly became a beacon of hope to have my work be a part of the Festival and the Festival’s history.  I will admit that I wanted this work to reside where the best artists in the world and the best artists in Canada are showcased – I am honoured to have this platform to share my work to the world and expose Luminato’s audiences to the unique experience and world of Obeah Opera.

What’s your favourite spot in Toronto? The world? 
NB: My favourite place in Toronto… wherever there is water so I will say Harbourfront. My Favourite place in the World…Durban, South Africa; Havana, Cuba is a close second. Though I still have much more of the world to see and experience before making a final decision ;) 

Which other Luminato 2019 shows are you excited to see? 
NB: I’m intrigued by Hell’s Fury:  The Hollywood Songbook as it presents an iconic composer and his work in music theatre but it runs simultaneously during our run so not sure if I am able to catch it. Masquerade looks fascinating with the simple description of ‘heaps of snow’ – how are they going to do that?! LOL. So many great shows…so little time…

See the hand-clapping, foot-stomping Obeah Opera from June 13-22, 2019 at the Fleck Dance Theatre.

Photo credit: Osato Erebor

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