By Savannah Clarke
Obeah Opera is a hand clapping, foot stomping, spirit lifting, magical musical sensation. Steeped in Black music, sung entirely a cappella by a powerful all-female cast, Obeah Opera is a retelling of the legendary Salem witch trials from the fascinating perspective of Caribbean slave women. It is a ground-breaking dramatic work that redefines the traditional 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 (taken from www.obeahopera.com).
Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of hearing some excerpts of Obeah Opera. After feeling connected to the stories I watched on stage, I caught up with Nicole to hear more about the Salem Witch Trials, what inspired her to do Obeah Opera and the spiritual aspects they entail.
Nicole: A few factors were happening, it was around 2008 where I was investigating my spirituality. Since I work in film and television, I was on the road with a crew and a crewmember came to my room to ask something and he saw that I was burning a candle and that I had incense and water. So when he saw all of that, he went back and rumors spread that he called me a witch. Instead of freaking out I said to myself: that’s really interesting. In this day and age, people are asking me “are you a practicing witch?” So, that was one of the stems where I thought it was really interesting. Also, at that time I was investigating African spirituality and looking more within my cultural roots and/or the Caribbean and/or African spirituality. Just learning and discovering.
I would say that was the catalyst for me, outside of a few people encouraging me to write for stage. I am really committed to telling Black women’s stories. I’ve always said it’s really important we have writers. Creators of content, [who are] creating work. So it was a combination of things and with all of those things happening it was very serendipitous for me to stumble upon researching witches more and of course eventually the Salem Witch Trials came up, which was the most famous witch trials in the America’s. As well, the name Tituba came up. Tituba was made famous through the play The Crucibles by Arthur Miller. She was the first Black slave accused at the Salem Witch Trials. She was from Barbados. I thought that was huge! How did we just bypass that? It’s written in history. It’s referenced a lot but then she’s forgotten. So I started to do more research and what I discovered was, yes indeed Tituba was a slave from Barbados who was brought to Salem and that there were more Black women in the Puritan town. This is real historical facts… Although, there weren’t that much written about them, TItuba had the most information and her testimonial was also transcribed. The testimonials of a couple of Black women were also there such as Mary Black and Candy. I thought it was fascinating because people never thought this town had slaves in the late 1600s/early 1700s. It’s amazing to not only “stumble” onto Tituba and realize that there were other black women from the Caribbean who were brought as slaves but were going beyond 100 years plus from where slavery is usually popularized in the 1800s in America. So, it’s really interesting to see the different factors that brought me to this story but also realizing the different facets of what I’m dealing with in regards to Black women’s history and Caribbean history. Now the question in writing this story is not about the first crossing of slaves coming from Africa, it’s the second crossing of slaves coming from the Caribbean to America. What’s that story? We don’t talk about that. What was the stop from Africa to the Caribbean and then from the Caribbean to the America’s?
The other thing that really excited me was the word Obeah, which I found in some of my research. I asked myself how are these white men referencing Obeah? Which was another indication to me that certain practices from the Caribbean really stayed in this Puritan town. For me, I didn’t realize at the time how controversial it was to use the word Obeah in our communities because of the negative connotations it holds and because of slavery, how we were told if we practiced anything or used our drum, anything that represented us, we would be lynched and killed. So, we have literally inherited all the way up to present day that Obeah in itself is evil. Without investigating what it is and I’m not saying that people don’t use Obeah for bad but I’m saying similar to any practice or religion, we have both sides. In Obeah Opera, I definitely look at the positive, which included having grandmas who knew how to use herbs to heal and midwifery. We were women who knew of these things and that true power threatens men, especially white men.
This is all to say that a whole bunch of factors contribute to how Obeah came to be. I can say the base of it is based on claiming back my story. Which includes the Black woman’s story, stories of the Caribbean and Africa. My people, and I’m not ashamed to say that. I’m very committed to the vantage point of the women’s story and retelling/rewriting history from my people’s lens after being excluded from history for so long.
When I saw you do your performance in Guelph you also mentioned that a lot of the knowledge and stories you gathered came from a very spiritual place of trying to evoke the energy of your ancestors. Can you touch on what that was like for you?
Nicole: Yeah, it’s not a secret that it’s based on the Orisha spirituality practice. When looking at the play you will see that each of the main female characters represents an Orisha and have those characteristics. I also show in the play that slaves, which is known, would go at night into the forest to practice Orisha or celebrate who they were. In there, I wanted to really show the strength of the slaves to not only survive the middle passage but also have the innovations and intuitiveness to preserve themselves. Such as hiding their practice in Catholicism because a lot of the Orisha practice is blended in with the Catholic religion. Also, what’s written in the script is paying homage to our Caribbean methodology, which is based in carnival. In the script, each character represents a carnival character and holds those respective characteristics. As I develop as a storyteller, I am beginning to realize that my components of storytelling are evolving to be based on history and telling Caribbean folklore and spirituality.
When I saw you perform, it was really powerful for me especially being from a Trinidadian background. It was beautiful for me to see those stories be brought back to voices of Black women and it was incredibly healing for me. What does it mean for you to be able to reclaim and explore these stories?
Nicole: I think it’s taken me a long time but I think that I am fulfilled in my practice. I realized that I am extremely privileged to have been afforded the opportunities that have been given to me. For example, it’s not easy to mount a play and the fact that I’ve had the opportunity on more than one account to mount this work is more than incredible. And that means a lot to me. I’m really happy that earlier on in my life I knew exactly what I was put on this earth to do. Now, it just continues to manifest and evolve as I evolve. I am a storyteller. That is what I do. Outside of this privilege, I also see my responsibility in being able to create stories for my children and my children’s children…Right now I am fighting the good fight of not moving away from the stereotype and heralding who we are and our history. Not being ashamed. Embracing our culture and our music in all of it’s glory.
I would love for Obeah Opera to debut in Salem so I can honor the women and the ground they were on because the women were real, these aren’t characters they are real people in history that were ignored. When you speak the ancestors name that’s what keeps them alive. If I were to sum it up, that’s what I do. I speak their name. To hold that mantle up, it’s an honor. We have the responsibilities to keep and tell our stories.
The more I work with other Black folks to help in the liberation of our people the more I realize this work needs to go hand in hand with spiritual healing and connecting with our storytellers. How do you feel social justice movements can incorporate this type of work and bring about the healing necessary so we can feel grounded in moving forward?
Nicole: Wow, that’s a deep question. I think that inherently the work (storytelling) in a social movement in itself. Obeah Opera is that. The reason I say that is that I’ve been told on more than one occasion, not only from Black women but from women period, the fact you’ve put us on stage in this positive light infuses, induces and demands change because you’re shifting perspective. The work that is on stage has ritual, so in fact, you are healing. So that’s Obeah Opera and through this we are liberating ancestors because they’re being showcased and they’re able to tell their story. The whole thing about not being silenced anymore; Obeah Opera or anything through the arts becomes a vehicle for voice, so that in itself is a vehicle for social justice, because social justice deals with voice and demands justice. Obeah Opera, as I see, demands justice. That’s why I’m saying before Broadway, I’d love to go to Salem and just honour the women and what they lived through and what they survived through and let them know that they are not forgotten. The biggest thing, what has happened to our people, to Black people, they erase the history and if you have no history, you are nothing. That is part of the genocide. that is why people burn documents, because they don’t want you to exist anymore. So when you realize that when you claim back history, claim back things that have happened, claim back your religion or your heritage, that in itself is a social justice act. When you remember your ancestors and your history and bring it to the forefront, that is a social justice act. When you remember and step into who you are, that inherently is healing. So my message is that even just being is part of social justice, in the sense that acceptance is part of social justice, in the sense that speaking the ancestors names, claiming the history and demanding you are not forgotten is social justice.
Obeah Opera loves #blacklivesmatter because the women in Salem’s lives matter and they will not go down in vain and neither will we because we’re standing up and taking responsibility. Even the hashtag #oscarssowhite and the hashtag #broadwaynotsowhite is interesting because this year is an interesting year. The Color Purple was back on Broadway, Fela! was there for a very long time, we have Hamilton, we have Eclipsed, which is the first ever Black woman written, Black woman directed and all female Black women cast on Broadway. I look at that as a paved way because I’m like “I’m coming!”. You know what I mean?
Media and the arts play a huge role in social justice. It brings awareness, it propels the message. I even say that television is the greatest propaganda tool of all time. So being able to see the messages and hear the stories is social justice too. Nina Simone once said that “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times” and that quote changed my life. Or even Billie Holiday when she wrote “Strange Fruit.” Look at what art has done to propel the movement. Even beyond Malcom X, the people involved with Black Lives Matter and other people standing up; the music, the tools of media, all of those things play a huge impact and it also deals with healing.
Spiritual healing comes in ancestral acknowledgement. Spiritual healing come from acknowledging and understanding your history and claiming it. I think in particular with Obeah Opera we have to have a town hall meeting in a version of the play because people people were ripping down the posters saying thing was a devil ting and we called in the community to talk about it and I realized how it transcends what we were taught. We were taught that we had, what we believed in, what we practiced, our cultural practices, our religious practices we wrong and we were told Christianity is the only way. I’m going to be very careful because some people might get offended and say “Christianity is very important to me”. What I’m saying is that the healing comes into saying that who we were was not evil, we were not evil. We were told we were evil.
I want to end with a quote from the play. A quote from a song called “My Mother’s Name” and the words go “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 gonna stand”. That’s healing.
Nicole Brooks is a Toronto-based filmmaker, director, performer, singer, playwright, composer, curator, teacher and ‘art-ivist’. She has developed the concept of “harmonized storytelling”; blending media and performing arts, Brooks has spent over 15 years envisioning narratives that illuminate the peoples of the African Diaspora. Through her company Asah Productions Inc., founded in 2005, Brooks has generated an impressive body of work for both stage and screen. To learn and follow Brooks’ latest work, please visit www.obeahopera.com; Twitter: @obeahopera; YouTube: obeahopera.