Illuminating Thoughts: Nicole Brooks on Obeah Opera

© Photo: Osato Erebor

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 reveling in the success of her creation, Obeah Opera. 

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.

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? 

NB:  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.

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.

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

*Published with permission from the Luminato Festival

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