Speaking the Ancestors’ Names: An Interview with Obeah Opera

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 Brookes
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.

Divine Liberation

illustration of a moon with floral inside

by Sharrae Lyon

The night was cold and Tamara Wilson walked through the rough terrain of the forest with fear and relief. It had been three days since she left the Wilson Estate. She had not yet heard any dogs barking after her, no dogs had yet been trained to track her scent, or so that is what she chose to think. Leading up to Tamara’s escape, she feared greatly the consequences of being captured. It had taken Tamara two years to muster up the courage to leave the plantation of Massa Wilson. No one from her memory had escaped or even attempted, though there were stories of other folk finding liberation in the mountains from neighbouring plantations.

Jamaica was a small island, but moving from the center towards the mountains was

no simple feat.

Tamara had to pass by many plantations before reaching the river that separated the

mainland from the mountains. If it weren’t for this circumstance and needing to travel by night,

she probably could have made it to her destination in a day’s time. But alas, she was searching for refuge. And it wasn’t her first time doing so. Tamara Wilson was a new name that this woman of slender-build, brown skin, and piercing eyes was given. She had become somewhat of an expert of escape. Her first attempt was when she was enslaved in New Orleans, but she was found and sold to a slaver from the Caribbean who had connections with Massa Wilson in Jamaica. Tamara could not tolerate being owned by another person, no matter how well they

treated her, or how scary it was to walk into the dark abyss of uncertainty, Tamara had a core sense of true liberation, that she experientially was not of aware of, but sat in the structures of her DNA. She could not muster the ability to conform to the brutality that she and her people have had to endure for the past 300 years. But it had also been so long since she heard her original name, the name that her mother gave her, that she succumbed to the name Tamara Wilson. She hated herself for it, but after being whipped numerous times when she demanded

that she be called her true name, the humiliation created a blockage in her memory.

In fact, Tamara Wilson forgot so much of who she used to be. She forgot who she loved, who her family was, what their names were, what their faces looked like. All brown she was certain, but that was the only thing she held. It felt like nothing. She felt empty, but despite this, she still felt like she had a purpose much stronger than being a slave girl, who laid for her master each night. Tamara felt nauseous each morning, she knew that she was now carrying the child of her Master, her abuser’s seed. It was then that she decided that she would not bring any child into a world of enslavement. Before she left, she had tried to convince her closest friend Winnie to join her. Despite Winnie’s terrible temper, she was the closest thing to family for Tamara and she could understand after witnessing some of the trauma that she had to endure, why she was the way she was.

Although fear had dissipated from Tamara’s consciousness and submerged into the depths of the oceans of her being, Tamara felt utterly alone. She looked up at the star-lit sky. She wondered to herself how it could be so beautiful up in night sky, but be so wretched on the ground that her feet didn’t allow her to lift up towards the sky and join the stars. She had the tendency to speak to one star in particular. It wasn’t necessarily the brightest star in the sky, but it had often called on her in times of loneliness. It was as if the star had wished to join her and keep her company, but because there were other laws and forces preventing the night sky and the Earth below to merge, it wasn’t physically possible to comfort her.

She often imagined what it would be like to be enwrapped in the embrace of her favourite star. Hot perhaps, but she often dreamed herself in the middle core of the star and what seemed like angel dust encircling her. Colours of red and gold surrounding her, dropping lightly on her golden brown skin. She deeply took in the fresh air and let out a moan. She had forgotten what it was also like to have her skin gently touched, caressed. Tamara was lost in her vision traveling in the star-filled sky, until she realized she heard footsteps in the bushes only meters away. Tamara’s heart started to panic and race as she quickly jumped off on the side of the road and hid behind a bush until the person appeared.

Look through the lush leaves, she could make out a figure that was round, and a bit taller than her. The figure was a woman, she almost screamed at the girl, but then the thought came to mind that it would be kinder to approach Winnie without scaring her. As she began to emerge from the bush the dreadful thought that Winnie could have been instructed by Massa Wilson to find her came to mind. ‘No,’ she thought, ‘I will not allow him to make me fear my friend.’ Tamara then slowly emerged from outside the bushes and walked gently behind Winnie and playfully pounce.

“Don’t you dare!”

“Huh?” Winnie turned around and playfully winked at Tamara.

“How did you know?” Tamara said playfully

“It’s only been three days, did you think we’d already forget to read each other’s mind?”

It was true, ever since Tamara arrived on Massa Wilson’s plantation, Winnie and Tamara seemed to have this uncanny and unspoken ability to understand each other on this deep psychic level. It was as if they could read each other’s minds. Tamara could not believe it was only three days since she left the plantation, it had seemed like three years.

“Thought I wouldn’t come, didn’t you?”

“Well yeah, you seemed to not budge.”

“I wanted to keep you surprised.” Tamara knew Winnie was hiding behind the humour, Winnie knew it too, but neither felt it was necessary.

“I needed to leave. You were right.” Tamara walked to Winnie and hugged her tightly.

“We have to keep moving. Was there anyone tracking us?”

“Not that I could see…”

“Wait what was that?” The bush nearby began to shake and Tamara’s heart began to rattle, but then a young boy, no older than the age of five poked out.

“Child! What are you doing here!?”

“That’s Bullah’s kid. Bullah was killed by Massa Wilson the night after you left. Blamed him for

not keeping proper watch” Winnie explained.

“Bullah…he…he’s dead?”

Tamara dropped to the ground in front of the young boy. Tears began to form in her eyes as she placed her hands on the little boy’s shoulders. He looked much like his father: round face, light skin, and light brown eyes. The young child wore a white cotton shirt and shorts with his father’s brown hat. The hat was too big for the child, but it was the only memory he had of his father. If she had known that her escape was going to cost Bullah his life, she would not have asked him to help her escape.

“Bullah would have been held responsible either way, don’t worry your head with such foolish thoughts.” Winnie mindfully comforted Tamara.

“My child you are with me and Winnie now. You are safe. We will protect you.” The young boy sombrely walked into Tamara’s arms and began to softly cry.

“Yes child, shed the tears for your father. Tears are the pathways to healing and remembering.”

“We better keep moving. Three of Massa Wilson’s slaves are missing, there is no count he’ll have a team after us by morning come.”

“Let’s go. We ain’t no slaves. The stars will guide us.”

Without notice Tamara, Winnie and the young boy were surrounded by three black dogs. Dogs who were trained to individually track each of their scents, dogs who too were broken and enslaved. It was clear that Massa Wilson’s men were not too far away. Tamara had experienced a similar situation back in Louisiana, but she was more fearful of what would happen to Winnie and the young child. With the boy still clutched around her, Tamara had the impulse to crouch down to the ground. As she did, she emptied her mind and began to chant what was an old language that she had not spoken it what seemed like lifetimes.

“Sha ro lay, ma et

tomah shengo,

shengo, shengo

tuet lohm meh.

Mahsa shemeoneh,

Shango

Shang”

As her voice raised from a whisper into a strong bellowing call, the wind began to pick up, a fierce wind that circled around them, leaving the three of them unaffected, as the wind that was being conjured began to push the dogs against their will. A heavy set of clouds began to cross the sky, making the stars that were just visible moments ago, disappear. A heavy grumbling bellowed in the depths of the Earth. The ground beneath them began to shake.

“Gaiath mahyo,

shango, destsa.”

Tamara’s eyes had gone blank, and when she awoke from her trance she had found that all three dogs had been struck dead. Winnie grabbed Tamara, and they began to run, but Tamara had become too weak. Winnie quietly hauled her over her shoulders, with the young child running quickly by her side.

“Guide me, which way do we go?”

Tamara had lost most of her strength, and all she could muster was raising her hand to the sky and she pointed towards the moon.

“Wait, this must be it.” As Winnie looked up towards the moon, she realized she was in standing at the bottom of a large mountain. Without any hesitation, she began to climb up the path that was created.

She then began to see other people who looked like them; seekers of freedom. Dark, brown, and red skin; people that had features she had never seen. They did not try to stop them, they were on watch for any others who had escaped the brutal plantations.

They finally reached what looked like the opening of a cave. A man stood strong and tall at it’s opening. He looked to be about seven feet tall, muscular, his chest showed his status, he was a leader of the people. He skin was a mixture of reddish and chocolate brown, and the fire torches held by those around them, shone a yellow glow. His face was serious, yet calmly he had his gaze on Tamara. His eyes were dark brown, almost black and it appeared like two pearls were sitting in the middle of his eyes; the reflection of the moon. He motioned to his companions sitting around Tamara, Winnie and the young boy. One of the companions approached Winnie who was wearing a brown cotton dress, and he extended his arms to carry Tamara.

“Where will you take her?”

The companion looked at her with an understanding look and gently took Tamara from her grip. He then carried her, over to the chief of the community.

Tamara now lay at the feet of the tall man. He then began to extend his arms in front of him, his eyes were now closed and his breathing became very heavy. Tamara, although still alive, appeared lifeless. His hands were extended over her body and he began to speak a language that sounded very similar to the language that Tamara spoke while she had conjured up the storm. His eyes then opened and the two pearls began to float from the centres of his eyes, they drifted over Tamara’s body, leaving his eyes now completely black. Winnie lifted the young child, and felt the urge to run away, but a young woman approached her and calumny eased her fears by simply holding her hand. The two orbs began to cross and dance over Tamara’s body, as the man continued to mutter words from his lips. Tamara’s breathing began to become deeper and more full and she finally got up, walked towards the man and placed her hands on his, her eyes became white once again, and the caves now became lit by the torches along the walls of the cave.

The two began to levitate and the companions began to sing, drum and dance as they whirled upwards in the cave. Tamara’s face began to brighten with a smile.

“Welcome home, my love, my Tamraha we have been separated for too long. I left you a star to remember my love, our love. You had been so alone. You’ve endured so much. I can never forgive myself for not protecting you how I should have, so long ago.”

“No Onek, my love, there was nothing that you could have done to change the circumstances that led me to this point. We are now here together, reunited. I have taken care of myself, the ancient ones shared with me our teachings. I did not forget. Your star had become my companion. Now it is time that we change what has been done to our people.”

“Our time is returning. We shall free our people from the bondages that have been placed around them.” Time seemed to slow, the wind that had been roaring transformed into a light breeze, and Tamraha and Onek began to descend to the ground. Winnie was stunned at what she just witnessed, but there was a memory that lived deep in her bones; a memory that alluded to the normalcy of what she witnessed.

Tamraha, her true name, as reminded by her long lost love Onek walked towards Winnie, grabbed her hand. This time Winnie could not read Tamraha’s mind, she was blocking her out. She had become more powerful.

“My sister, We suffer no longer. We are free. We must now free this island.” Tamraha placed her two thumbs in between Winnie’s brow, and Winnie began to see visions of her people being placed on ships, of vast oceans, she began to smell the decaying scent of flesh and feces, and was transferred back to the lush forests, the red soil of her ancestor’s village. She began to remember her true nature, a free woman.

“Whatever it takes, Tamraha. I am with you.”


Sharrae Lyon
Sharrae Lyon is a transdisciplinary artist, writer and facilitator. She believes in the powerful role of science fiction and futurism to answer the spiritual and internal questions around “Otherness,” with the curiosity to redefine what it means to be human. Through the engagement in ancestral healing, Sharrae is driven by unleashing personal and collective power in order to create futures that are sustaining, life-giving and affirming.