In review: Obeah Opera All photos by Racheal McCaig.

In review: Obeah Opera

Greg Finney

Friday, August 7th, 2015. This is the day I finally understood why the human race began singing and dancing in the first place. I don’t know how or why it started, but I was reminded of how blessed we are by its presence in our lives.

Obeah Opera was presented at the Young Centre for Performing Arts. The piece, a Nicole Brooks Vision, was commissioned by the PANAMANIA Festival associated with the Pan-Am and Parapan-Am games.

I brought my friend, mezzo-soprano Linda Gallant along, because she (like me) craves a visceral reaction to music and theatre and dance. She’s one of my partners-in-crime in this whole lyric theatre business.

We sat in some great seats - just a couple rows behind TV’s Paul Gross (Due South, Slings and Arrows, #tripleswoontimesinfinity) - and sat excitedly to see this wonderful work’s new incarnation.

It tells the story of Tituba (Nicole Brooks) a proud healer who is captured and brought to Salem, MA during the height of Puritanism and the infamous witch trials of the late 17th century. In an uncompromised act of human kindness she uses her gifts of healing to cure the daughter (Dana Jean Phoenix) of the bigoted, misogynistic, Reverend (Janet MacEwen) of a mysterious illness.

Word gets out of Tituba’s actions, and we all know how the Puritans react…

Photo by Racheal McCaig

The set by Robin Fisher was open, free, and sparse. Rustic wood, rope, and the creative use of church pews to simulate jails, forests, beds and rostrum a was clever and effective. Fisher’s costumes evoked the era brilliantly, and accentuated the beautiful, and extremely diverse range of bodies.

Bonnie Becher’s lighting was warm, and inviting, creating a palpable contrast between that and the powerful things being said and the despicable things being done to these ladies of the African diaspora.

As Tituba, Brooks is electric! Her earthy, smoky tone comes from a place within the crust of the earth. Her connection to the material and the struggles of these women is a wonder to behold as both an actor and a singer. She is onstage for pretty much the entire show, singing with her whole life and body. Her stamina is a wonder.

Photo by Racheal McCaig.

MacEwen’s Rev. Samuel Parris is enthralling. Her deep, dark colour and fluid range carry her through this pants role in a fashion that rivals the best Cherubinos and Kompinists around. A far cry from her claim to fame - Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast - she proves, once again, that she’s a true Canadian treasure.

Dana Jean Phoenix as Betty Parris is a firecracker. Her versatility vocally and her dynamic energy has you captivated as the young girl, trying to come to grips with why her community thinks this group of stunning, exotic creatures could possibly be harbouring the evil they claim. A well prouduced, sparkling, musical theatre soprano, she gets better every time I hear her.

I’ve always been a big fan of Divine Brown, but I had no idea what she was fully capable of. And that’s my mistake. Wow. Just wow. Intelligent, skillful command of a beautiful and versatile instrument. It’s the definition of “A Joyful Noise”. The nicest surprise was her gift for acting. Her truth rang through the rafters.

Obeah is also a feast of movement. The whole piece had only a few select moments of stillness carefully selected by both director Lezlie Wade and choreographer Anthony “Prime” Guerra. Guerra’s pieces were a balance mixture of African and Contemporary Lyrical and though the ladies were of varying dance skill, the dancing itself was fluid, strong, creative, supported and natural. It seemed as if the women of Obeah were freestyling much of the piece.

Photo by Racheal McCaig.

The music was a delicious mix of African and Caribbean rhythms and harmonies interspersed with some Baptist hymn work thrown in for contrast. The odd jazzy number and a creepy ass tango rounds out Brooks’s entirely a capella score. This group of women were singers and orchestra both an the effect is remarkable.

The only thing I missed was the presentation in the round. At the workshop it provided added perspective to the music to hear it coming from EVERYWHERE. In front of and behind you and beside you. It was more immersive. The use of microphones this time around, while it had its virtues, I think it robbed the score of some of the perspectives it had at the workshop, particularly in the scene where Tituba and her “sisters” were rounded up and thrown in prison for witchcraft.

All the women on the stage were stunning performers and as a cis-gendered, gay, Caucasian male I want to take this opportunity to thank Nicole Brooks and all the women on that stage for sharing this poignant, moving, and beautiful story with me and all of us. It’s an important story and you tell it beautifully.

The final image of the show during the curtain call showed a complete spectrum of feminine strength, courage, and beauty.

I’m a better person because of this show, and I think Toronto is a better city for it as well.

Obeah’s sold-out run closes tonight, the 8th. There are a select few rush seats and standing-room that will be available, so I suggest you get there early and secure a seat. Trust me, your soul needs this.

Corrections: Apologies. A previous version named Music Director Andrew Craig (who also did great work with a difficult score) as the choreographer. Also, Paul Gross was not in Northern Exposure.

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