Obeah Opera: A Theatrical Journey That Lets Go

“Just look at it without all the baggage.” – ahdri zhina mandiela, artistic director and poet

Cast of Obeah Opera

Scene from Obeah Opera. From left to right: Bemnet Tekleyohannes, Joni NehRita, Nicole Brooks, Macomere Fifi (centre) and Saidah Baba Talibah. Photo by Nation Cheong

Obeah Opera runs until Sunday, March 4th at the Bathurst Centre for Culture at 918 Bathurst St.

For tickets, visit obeahopera.com.

Eight days before the opening night of Obeah Opera, ahdri zhina mandiela, poet, playwright and stage director arrives at a Toronto cafe with singer-performer Saidah Baba Talibah. Rehearsal has recently wrapped up. Over the din of whirring machines and nearby chatter, mandiela talks with me about obeah, and why something, that once brought comfort to a people, has been darkened by fear.

“Obeah is bad. You don’t even say the word; that is how taboo it is,” says mandiela. “So we never even get a chance to know what it is and what it’s not.” In considering that blind fear, she’s summoning people to, “just look at it without all the baggage.” mandiela stage directs a cast of 15 artists, all of them immersing themselves into Obeah Opera, a dramatic musical production that’s performed a cappella.

The idea of looking at obeah, even by way of song, is a rarity and can leave the strongest person ill at ease. Both Talibah and mandiela admit auditions proved that. I ask why black folks, especially those from the Caribbean, harbour an aversion to obeah. Is that hatred earned or learned?

“Like all that is forbidden, we’ve personalized it,” says mandiela. “We’ve taken on the policing of obeah. It’s so deep and ingrained …You don’t move into a neighbourhood that might have obeah, nor do you go near it for fear that you can catch it.”

Drawn to the idea

Knowing mandiela is knowing she has her way with words. She’s a melodious poet from her dub roots straight through to the many productions she’s handled as founder and artistic director of b current, a prolific performance arts company that recently celebrated its 20th year in operation. Despite the fact that her own Jamaican heritage shuns obeah publicly, this director was attracted to the obeah opera concept the first time she heard it.

The idea was created by Nicole Brooks, an accomplished filmmaker and producer who interned as music director for b current’s production of Wise Woman in 2009. Her singing background—topped with her strong vocals — convinced mandiela that Brook’s development project was meant to grow into something of ambitious proportions.

Obeah Opera reveals enlightened realities of an African healing art, known to many as obeah, or voodoo or Santeria. The drama is delivered in a storyline that focuses on the slave Tituba during the late 17th century Salem Crucible in Massachusetts.

Historic banning and breaking down

History pages confirm the Yoruba religion and culture helped to nurture the faith of West Africans. As mandiela describes it, there was a process of using the natural or spiritual world to guide, protect and understand life. But that faith clashed with the new world West Africans encountered as slaves imported to the Caribbean then to parts of South and North America.

By Maureen Warner-Lewis. Many writings explore the influences of the Yoruba of West Africa.

Puritans feared something they couldn’t understand and vehemently accused some obeah practitioners—mainly women—of sorcery. As a result, traditions and rituals of obeah have been defiled, dismissed and hijacked by people who know the fragmented faith only as “black magic.”

Talibah, who plays Mary, one of the women persecuted in Salem, agrees with mandiela’s interpretation of the obeah stigma.  “It’s such a travesty to think about our history of our people.  Through (the) years we had traditions and rituals and things that have been passed over and then at a certain point it became, ‘No you can’t talk about that.’”

Strengthening of a cast

Talibah tuned her performance skills in her earlier years at Toronto’s own Claude Watson School of Arts, and today her robust vocals have enticed a diverse fan base of music lovers like moths to a flame. On stage she is joined by a cast of four more potent vocalists. Saphire Demitro (Sarah) is a graduate of St. Clair College’s Musical Theatre Performance Program; Macomere Fifi, aka Eulith Tara Woods (Elder) is an award-winning Calypsonian queen and folk singer; Joni NehRita (lead role of Tituba) is a singer, songwriter and musician who studied jazz at Humber College; and filmmaker Brooks (Candi) birthed the opera as its librettist. Blending with the cast is a chorus of 10 female singers who shift into various roles, evoking the spirit of the trials that threaten to break Tituba.

Talibah says she witnessed another transformation among her fellow artists, perhaps spillage from their different take of obeah. “People being more of themselves and being less afraid of being exposed is the shift I’m seeing,” she says. “I’ve been there and sometimes when I feel resistance coming, I say I got to let it go. It’s just not going to go further if I resist.”

As she listens to Talibah, mandiela smiles. She adds that the letting-go process presented itself to her at the start of the year while visiting Brazil.  mandiela and her daughter Jajube were footloose, exploring where roads took them when they stopped in at a place of worship. “Looking at how people go to church to do that—to let go—I realized: that’s what we’re doing in Obeah Opera. There’s a recognition of really letting go and that contributes so much once you can see yourself in everybody.”

For these affirming reasons and many more, mandiela is encouraging people to see and hear Obeah Opera for themselves, for the first time.


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