Nicole Brooks is a filmmaker, director, performer, singer, playwright, composer, curator, teacher and “art-ivist,” who has devoted over 15 years producing innovative content (for the stage and screen), with a focus on narratives that illuminate the peoples of the African Diaspora. In 2012 Brooks officially added playwright to her list of talents with her debut theatrical work OBEAH OPERA which has been staged in various incarnations from festivals to staged workshop productions in Toronto between 2009 and 2014. Honoured with a Dora nomination in 2012 and with continued development thereafter, OBEAH OPERA now has its world premiere as a prestigious commission from Panamania, the cultural arm of the Toronto 2015 Pan American/Parapan American Games. She was also the 2014 recipient of the prestigious Harry Jerome Arts Award for her outstanding achievements in the arts. Brooks is Co-Artistic Director of Culchahworks alongside acclaimed musician and founder Andrew Craig as well as founder and Director of Asah Productions Inc.
The 2015 Panamania commission Obeah Opera begins next week. Watch a flash mob performance of “Di Moon Song” from Obeah Opera.
I am thrilled to interview Nicole Brooks, asking her ten questions: five about herself and five more about the premiere.
1-Are you more like your father or your mother?
When reading this question, my knee jerk reaction had me thinking I would love to say my mother – but that is so inherently untrue – she is the strong, silent type and for those who meet my mother are shocked that she gave birth to a being like me.
When people meet my dad (who I have not been close to for many years) they say ‘now it all makes sense!’ My father is one of the most outgoing, entrepreneurial, talkative, outrageous personalities you will ever meet. Through example, and dare I say osmosis, he taught me the art of being a personable and irresistible sales person. He has a gift in sales … and apparently so do I. 😉
2-what is the best thing about what you do?
I’ve been very fortunate in my life and career – the majority of the projects that I have embarked upon have all come to life and been presented to the world in the most amazing ways. My career is my love and hobby – I am a storyteller and I have had the opportunity to express my stories through various mediums including film, television, music, teaching, and now theatre. But in regards to this specific question I have to say the best thing about what I do:
I love collaboration.
For me this is where the true magic is created.
There is one thing to create a work but it is another to see it come to life – and I have found that a work can only come to life with the gifts and mastery of others. I wish I can say I am good at absolutely everything, but hey I am not, so when I get in a room with masters of design, directing, producing, cinematography, visual art, choreography or any other medium that is required for that specific work, and then begin to experience their genius that adds to the work, it is just simply extraordinary. It truly is a gift to have an army of artistic ‘gods’ and ‘goddesses’ make your work stellar – I have learned throughout the years that it truly does take a village to ‘raise’ a work.
3-who do you like to listen to or watch?
Wow not sure how to answer this one – as a filmmaker, I tend to watch a lot when I have the time.
Hmmm and the same applies to music.
But I guess upon reflection, I will say that I have observed in my time of great stress or a desperate need for an opening for inspiration, or even just to feel good, my go-to is gospel music. For those who know me well, they know that I am girl who was not only raised in the church but I was a choir leader and led the church in song regularly. Gospel music over the years has become my meditation I realize. Nothing in the world to me is more uplifting. The realm of gospel artists that I listen to is quite extensive and ranges from groups to individuals.
Richard Smallwood, James Hall, Kirk Carr, Mary Mary, Yolanda Adams, Leandria Johnson, Smokey Norful, Tamala Mann, Kirk Franklin, Fred Hammond, Commissioned are just a handful of artists in that genre that I grew up with and love to listen to even to this day.
You can take the girl out of the church, but you can’t take the church out of the girl.
4-what ability or skill do you wish you had that you don’t have.
Great question. I have always wished I had the skill of a visual artist. I envy and admire that talent – paintings, pottery, sculpting, needlepoint (yes I said needlepoint) – anything to do with the hands in this manner is amazing to me.
Answering this question makes me want to take a painting 101 class right now, LOL.
5-when you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?
OK, for the record, I don’t know how to engage in the art of relaxing – “no” to me is an art form that I am desperate to embrace. My time when not working is usually spent with my 2 kids which is a combination of heaven and hell depending on the day, LOL.
Outside of that – sleeping is most likely my favourite thing to do. A good sleep calls in the most amazing dreams, and those dreams usually manifest the next work I am called to do.
Five more about preparing Obeah Opera as part of Panamania.
1-Tell us about the first version of Obeah Opera, what it meant to you.
The first version of Obeah Opera meant possibility.
I had the great fortune of meeting and working with ahri zina mandiela, the founder and artistic director of b current at the time. Obeah Opera was submitted to b current’s rock.paper.sistahs festival (a festival specifically for presentation of new works for women of colour) as a concept, an idea in a form never been done before and when asked, I admitted to her that in addition to this new ‘form’ of expression, this would be my first attempt to write a piece for the stage and my first time really ever composing a musical work. It was ahdri who encouraged me to begin the process with writing 10 minutes with 5 women and see what would emerge. That was in 2009 – what has happened each year for the following 6 years has been nothing short of amazing.
Each year the piece grew from 10 to 20 to 30 minutes until I was told ‘enough’ and write the play in its entirety. Each year I was pushed way out of my comfort zone, not only learning the new art of theatre but telling a theatrical story entirely sung.
I know that I was given an extraordinary privilege to have my first theatrical work mounted – and it is a privilege that I do not ever take for granted. I am grateful for everything and everyone who has crossed my path in the Obeah Opera creation journey (good, bad or indifferent) because it is these experiences that have led me to where I am today.
Beyond what I have shared above, I also learned how imperative it is to share ‘your’ story. One of the catalysts for me writing this work was simply a challenge from djanet sears (writer/director Adventures of a Black Girl In Search of God – a show I had the pleasure to be in) who, over the years, would counsel us as we would come to her and beg her to find a way to remount this show because of the content and our experience of being in a show. She would always tell us, do not rely on me to tell these/our stories alone, go and write your own – we need it, the world needs it. I listened.
2- the current version of Obeah Opera is apparently different, is much longer. Please talk about the development of this new work, and how the work has changed from its original version.
Yes the current version of Obeah Opera is very different and indeed much longer. When the earlier incarnation of the work was mounted in 2012, I knew in my heart it was not finished and it was underdeveloped and a lot of the critics made the same observation even though it received strong and positive reviews. I took this criticism to heart and, to a lot of people’s surprise, went back into development for about a year in 2013 with dramaturg Erica Kopyto (Nightwood Theatre) to really develop the narrative specifically – she was only interested in looking at the story arc and not the music – to really flesh out the journey to ensure that a strong narrative with a beginning, middle and end was carved out and created.
In addition, my colleague Andrew Craig also aided the process after hearing of my difficulty articulating the music (I do not write music or have any formal training) and supplied me with a multi- track recording device and encouraged me to sing all parts of every song and create guide tracks so everyone could hear what was indeed in my head. The combination of those two things changed the work dramatically.
Most recently, I also had the privilege to have an intensive 6 weeks with New York director and dramaturg Kim Wield who I have to mention also brought the work to the next level – she really understood the new style of writing that I was doing and helped me identify more the ‘language’ of the piece which I didn’t really notice before. One of my Oprah ‘aha’ moments in this development phase is that I discovered, most recently, that this work truly embraces the notions of Carnival, its archetypes, history and such.
It was such a huge learning for me and I was really grateful for the critique. I would have done a huge disservice if I didn’t take that exclusive time off to work on it and present it to the world again. The earlier incarnation can be now described as a piece that was presented in tableaux – it is now a full narrative of Tituba’s journey from even before she arrives in Salem to the moment of her trial.
This meant development and addition of characters – in the earlier version it only had 5 main characters including Tituba, The Elder and the 3 other slave women who accompany Tituba on her journey (Mary, Candy and Sarah).
The only Puritan that was really ‘showcased’ was Rev Parris – Betty, Abigail, Mercy, Captain, Doc Griggs and Elizabeth did not exist. So this version includes more of a ‘balance’ of white and black characters in the story.
Also, unlike many theatre shows (and this may be a critique in the end), the story actually begins with Tituba’s past in a flashback – the entire prologue shows Tituba’s beginning as a runaway slave and her spiritual encounter and thus ‘quest’ in the beginning; then she is shipped to Salem. In that way, there is way more context as to what her journey is and, may I add, it is also more well rounded; it actually coincides more closely to the Crucible story line but has my take on the motivations behind why the hysteria occurs which lies in Abigail’s deep-rooted envy of Tituba’s relationship with Betty and her wanting power and attention, vowing to ‘bring her down’.
Panamania only commissions new works/world premieres. To this end, part of my commission was to mount a workshop production in 2014 for them to see the new development. I’m happy that it was clear to everyone that this was indeed a new piece and they were eager to have this new work be staged during the Games.
3-In traditional opera, women are the ones privileged to sing of their pain and suffering. Please talk about how you see Obeah Opera either within this tradition or possibly breaking with that tradition.
Obeah Opera both stays within and breaks the traditional Opera form.
Indeed, this piece allows for women to have the privilege to sing of their pain and suffering so this piece works within that realm.
However what has to be noted is that this work is told exclusively by women. There are no men in this piece – hence, we have gender-bending and all that good stuff presented here. This is a piece written by a woman, told by women and, for me, that is seriously powerful.
Also traditional opera is usually akin to European classical genres of music – this work is definitely not that. Obeah Opera tells the story of the Salem witch trials through the vantage point of the Caribbean slave Tituba and as such, the musical journey is also told through that experience.
A cast member just shared with me that she thought it was awesome that Obeah Opera in itself is a musical journey of the different arrays of Black music – this story is about Black women’s experience during the witch hunt so the music and words reflect that experience as well.
“Until Lion(esses) have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.” ~ Ashanti Proverb
4-Please talk about the women in this show, what they bring to the production.
OK, so how do I do this? The current cast of 14 – they are ALL superstars within their own right…ugggh! I’m going to have to resort to the amazing Press Release just released that sums up each of the stars found in this cast:
Juno Award winner Divine Brown (Mary), Jesus Christ Superstar Broadway cast member Karen Burthwright (Candy), Jean A. Chalmers Award winner Diana Coatsworth (Captain/Doctor), musical theatre maverick Saphire Demitro (Auctioneer/Shapeshifter), versatile vocalist Deidrey Francois (Sarah), Collective of Black Artists – COBA – dancer Nickeshia Garrick (Shapeshifter), Acting Up Stage’s Falsettos company member Sarah Gibbons (Abigail), Mary Poppins Broadway and U.S. national tour cast member Janet MacEwen (Parris), artist educator and multi-forms dancer Debbie Nicholls-Skerrit (Shapeshifter), Afro-Cuban drum and dance ensemble Ilédè Artistic Director Melissa Noventa (Mercy/Shapeshifter), Juno-Nominated God Made ME Funky lead singer Dana Jean Phoenix (Betty), Dora Award nominee Sabryn Rock (Elizabeth) and international Calypso star Singing Sandra (Cultural Ambassador of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, two-time Calypso Monarch) as The Elder…
See what I mean in way of collaboration – I play Tituba and I am so honoured to be sharing the stage with these mega-song goddesses who just bring Obeah Opera to the next level.
5- Is there a teacher or influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?
I have to say that there are too many teachers and, dare I say, supporters of this work that I especially admire – I wouldn’t feel comfortable just naming one.
So I opt to talk about one of the major influences in my life and specifically in this work: Bobby McFerrin.
For many years, I have followed his work and admired his greatness in improvisation, his ability to create ‘voices’ and his mastery of the a cappella musical style. Many don’t know of his impressive body of work that goes wayyyy beyond his hit single ‘Don’t worry be, be happy’. He is a 10-time Grammy award winner, defined as a music industry rebel, exploring uncharted vocal territory; he is an instrumentalist, a band leader and an orchestral conductor, just to name a few.
I will share that his album ‘Medicine Man’ would be the base and launching pad for Obeah Opera – this album was released in 1990 and forever changed my life, musically and otherwise. I was amazed that one person could create such a musical odyssey with just his voice and I would practice along with him and do my best to imitate his genius in sound and writing.
I had no idea that over 20 years later I would have a work that promotes ‘uncharted vocal territory’ similar to his work and, although I do not have his musical educational background or experience to any degree, in hindsight, I see that I, to some degree, have taken the term “imitation is the best form of flattery” to a whole other level. One of my dreams come true would be to have him musically direct this piece – I WOULD DIE and go to heaven quite happily.
Forever grateful for his genius and influence in my life. Thank you Bobby.
Culchahworks Arts Collective and Panamania presented by CIBC
Present the world premiere of
A Nicole Brooks Vision
in association with Nightwood Theatre and b current
Tuesday, August 4 to Saturday, August 8, 2015
Tuesday-Saturday @7pm; Saturday matinee @1pm
Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts
in The Distillery District
50 Tank House Lane, Toronto, ON, M5A 3C4
For tickets, call the Young Centre Box Office at 416.866.8666 or visit http://tickets.youngcentre.ca/single/PSDetail.aspx?psn=8461 or http://obeahopera.com/
For more information, visit Facebook/ObeahOpera and follow Obeah Opera on Twitter: @ObeahOpera