Scene from OBEAH OPERA. Photographer: Nation Cheong
Theatre Isn't Dead contributor Tanisha Taitt, is a Toronto-based singer/songwriter, theatre director, producer, actor, arts educator, activist, et al. She took in OBEAH OPERA on opening night and has a FEW things to say about it.
C'mon Toronto, we want more theatre like this!
The name OBEAH OPERA was likely chosen for its alliteration. The title is a bit misleading, in that those expecting to see actors perform the classical-style, soprano singing that we associate with female "opera" singers, aren't going to get that here. And while it is almost entirely sung through, calling OBEAH OPERA a musical might be more accurate.
Call it what you want -- just don't call it less than highly ambitious.
Set during the Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s, the play tells the story of a young woman named Tituba (Joni NehRita). Alongside many women accused of witchcraft, Tituba is charged with practicing obeah, a Caribbean spiritual practice considered evil and an affront to Christianity.
Who knew that a West Indian practice was part of such an infamous period in American history? OBEAH OPERA creator Nicole Brooks was fascinated when she made the discovery, and set out to tell the story. With the support of b current and its Artistic Director andri zhina mandiela, also the show's director, the show was originally birthed as a 10-minute piece. Now a full-length production is on stage at 918 Bathurst Centre for Culture.
The most captivating thing about the piece is that it is performed entirely a cappella. The score is demanding and could easily have eluded the capabilities of lesser vocalists. Composer and librettist Nicole Brooks and musical director Tova Cardonne make a fine team and the vocal arrangements are tight. Ultimately though, the success of OBEAH OPERA rests on the singing and, thankfully, it is beautiful. NehRita, Saidah Baba Talibah (Mary), Macomere Fifi (Elder), Saphire Demitro (Sarah) and Brooks (Candy) each perform solos with confidence and passion. In addition, there is a sterling 10-member chorus. The 15 voices blend with seemingly no effort at all. The slightest veering off-course could have led to a dissonant mess, but the harmonies are spot-on.
As Tituba, NehRita possesses a voice of great power and sweetness but not a typical gospel belt, and that makes her a vocal standout. However in terms of sheer charisma, no one in the cast can touch Saidah Baba Talibah. Whenever her Mary comes to the fore and begins to sing, the rest of the cast almost seems to fade into the ether behind her. This is no reflection on the other actors, but rather a testimony to Talibah formidable's stage presence. The simple but tasteful work of set/costume designer Julia Tribe and lighting designer CJ Astronomo is highly effective and atmospheric.
I had two main quibbles with the production. First of all, there are elements to story that could be clearer. I found that Ihad to check my program after to answer questions that could've been addressed more clearly in the libretto. As well, the show suffers from instances of unfortunate blocking. While I can appreciate the difficulty of staging a play in which the whole cast is onstage and moving throughout, I became frustrated with the choice to repeatedly move the character of the Elder on and off the stage by having her go up and down a ramp in the theatre's centre aisle and simply stand in a highly distracting place when she wasn't part of the action. We repeatedly were treated to her back in moments when the elder is bestowing her advice on the women. I felt that along with detracting slightly from the visual picture -- it wouldn't have taken anything away had she climbed the ramp looking at the women but faced forward to sing -- it depleted the potential potency of those moments not being able to see the expression on a highly expressive face. I also found the intermission jarring; it felt unnecessary and I feel that the show's emotional impact would be better served by performing it in one act.
That said, one cannot help but root for and be impressed by the group of extremely talented women who bring this tale and this lovely score to life. Nor can one deny the obvious talent and bright future of Nicole Brooks. "Opera" or not, OBEAH OPERA is a unique creation, and an admirable achievement.
- By Tanisha Taitt
OBEAH OPERA is playing now until March 4 at 918 Bathurst St. For tickets, click here or call: