Review: Obeah Opera (Luminato/Asah Productions)

Nicole Brooks with the company of Obeah Opera. Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh.Luminato brings a new version of the a cappella telling of the Salem Witch trials to Toronto

Obeah Opera tells the story of the Salem witch trials from the perspective of the first woman accused: a Caribbean slave named Tituba. Sung through entirely a cappella, the latest incarnation of this surprisingly vibrant and uplifting show is currently presented in Toronto as part of the Luminato Festival.

Like most people, I’m most familiar with the Salem witch trials and the character of Tituba from Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible. Miller’s play and indeed most of the written history of that period centres on the stories of the white women accused of witchcraft in Salem and what Obeah Opera seeks to do is give voice to the marginalized Black women and slaves whose experiences we’ve never heard about.  

The show is conceived, written, and composed by Nicole Brooks (who also stars as Tituba), she has worked on successive iterations of the show since 2009. This latest version presented for Luminato is truly magnificent. It is thrilling to see this bold work given a Broadway-calibre production with the big cast, staging, lighting, and movement design. It absolutely feels operatic in scope and scale. 

Told through music and movement, the show traces Tituba’s story in broad, impressionistic strokes, from her enslavement in Barbados through to her being accused of witchcraft and subsequent trial in Salem. Tituba’s perspective is rooted in her Caribbean culture and spirituality. 

Tonally, Obeah Opera could not be more different than The Crucible. Despite the subject matter, the show never feels heavy and it doesn’t dwell on the racism and violence committed against the slaves. Instead, it is defiant and at times even celebratory. These women are strong and resilient; they don’t want your pity, they instead demand your respect and your attention.

Musically, the score references several Black musical styles including spirituals, African folk, calypso, gospel, soul, blues, and jazz. The cast of 20 is able to produce a big, bold choral sound but also illustrate the amazing texture in the a cappella arrangements. Kudos to musical director Melanie DeMore.

The movement design by Anthony ‘Prime’ Guerra is an equally important part of the storytelling; the dance elements firmly root the story in Afro-Caribbean culture. Combined with director Lezlie Wade’s staging, the show feels incredibly vibrant and dynamic. There’s a sense of rhythm and flow that permeates throughout the length of the performance; it is just full of so much life.

Superbly designed and brilliantly performed with passion and heart, this big, bold, full-length production of Obeah Opera is definitely the highlight of this year’s Luminato Festival for me. 

Details:

  • Obeah Opera is playing from June 13 – 22, 2019 at the Harbourfront Centre’s Fleck Dance Theatre (207 Queens Quay W) as part of the Luminato Festival.
  • Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.
  • Tickets $39 – $85; Student/Youth, Under 30, and Arts Worker discounts available
  • Tickets are available in person at the onsite box office or online. 

Photo of Nicole Brooks with the company of Obeah Opera by Jeremy Mimnagh.

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