Theatrical productions on Broadway are considered the best in the world.
When Obeah Opera – which synthesizes the breadth of Black music into an enthralling stage a cappella – was selected to be part of the Toronto 2015 Pan & Parapan American Games arts & culture program, developer Nicole Brooks could hardly contain her excitement.
“The world meets Toronto and Toronto meets the world,” she said of the upcoming quadrennial regional Games that will bring nearly 6,000 athletes from 41 countries to compete in the largest multi-sport event in Canada. “But what is beautifully ironic is that Toronto is the world. We are a metropolis of so many creeds, cultures, races and religions and so now everyone is coming together. The world is coming to us. This is bigger than Broadway for me.”
Panamania, the name and brand that’s associated with the Toronto 2015 Games cultural events, will showcase the artistic brilliance of established and emerging artists from the Americas. The multi-disciplinary performing arts program will feature theatre, aquaculture, dance, fashion, music, spoken word and visual arts.
“Sport is movement in art in some instances,” said Brooks who was born and raised in Ottawa. “What a beautiful thing it is to have the two merge together and that is what is most exciting to me.”
Three years ago, the talented artist created, wrote, composed and performed Obeah Opera which garnered a Dora Mavor Moore Award nomination in the “Outstanding New Musical/Opera” category.
Buoyed by the show’s success, Brooks went back to the drawing board and developed a deeper narrative and new music.
The daughter of Jamaican immigrants, she heads a 20-member all-female cast that animate the story of the Salem Witch Trials from the unique perspective of enslaved women. A series of hearings and prosecutions of people accused of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts in 1692 and 1693 ended with 20 executions, the majority women.
Tituba, an Arawak Indian who was captured as a child and taken to Barbados where she was sold into slavery before moving to Boston in 1680 with her owner, was one of the first women to be accused of practicing witchcraft during the trials.
“When I was investigating the trials and looking at Tituba, I knew there had to be more to this Black slave,” said Brooks who has collaborated with the National Film Board of Canada to develop her first feature length documentary that will focus on Salome Bey who is considered Canada’s first lady of the blues. “Looking at the historical references, I saw the word obeah and then noticed her link to Barbados. That added another dimension because obeah is a very Caribbean term.
“For me, it was funny that they used the word obeah because it’s also known that Tituba was able to heal people and that reminded me of my grandmother who used herbs and other potions. When my mom saw one of the incarnations of the show, she mentioned that it’s not the obeah that she knew. I had to explain to her that when we were colonized, we were told everything about us was bad. For me, this is shedding a different light on what obeah is considered. It’s an educational piece.”
The talented cast includes six-time national calypso champion Macomere Fifi (Eulith Tara Woods) and Nathaniel Dett Chorale founding member Alana Bridgewater.
“We knew that we needed powerful Black women in this piece,” Brooks said. “So many strong women singing songs together will transform audiences.”
The producer and director of A Linc in Time: The Lincoln Alexander Story, Brooks makes her theatrical debut in Obeah Opera.
“The transition is amazing and challenging,” she said. “After a film is finished, it’s shown and you can sit back and watch it and hear from people who view it. With theatre, being live on stage every night is demanding. I have to perform and deliver every night which is a huge responsibility.”
Directed by Weyni Mengesha with music direction by Andrew Craig, Obeah Opera will be presented at Panamania by Nightwood Theatre and Culchahworks Arts Collective.
“We are committed to telling our stories and this piece is historically important,” said Culchahworks president Michelle Farrell who heads a board that includes award-winning singer/songwriter Molly Johnson, television & film producer Barbara Boyden, inspirational speaker and consultant Marva Wisdom and television journalist Dwight Drummond who, with his wife Janice, hosted a fundraiser at their Toronto residence last week. “Theatre productions are however expensive and we are seeking donations as we prepare for the Games next summer.”
Interested donors can go to www.culchahworks.com and go to the donation link.