According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Conjur Woman: A Folk Opera

A slave woman uses black magic to turn her lover into a tree in an effort to keep him from being sold to another plantation owner. Given its style, it seems well-suited for the fringe or festival circuit. Under the Radar Festival, which just closed recently, comes to mind. Although Obie-winner Sheila Dabney is a compelling performer, she is upstaged by the supporting band.
Photo of Sheila Dabney by Jerry Vezzuso
Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

There are no bells and whistles to behold in Beatrice Manley's Conjur Woman. An extravagant set and costumes are replaced by a wooden-slat background, stripped wood furniture, a long, suspended rope that foreshadows too much, and slave garb. But performer and vocalist Sheila Dabney provides more than enough stimuli to keep the audience invested: she sings of and with pain and impossible dreams, and puts on a caged, desperate persona that leaves a handprint with its touch. The production, however, does have some flaws.

Jasper McGruder makes his harmonica sing the soulful intro to the show, and is followed by composer Yukio Tsuji on percussion as they take centerstage. The musicians pave the way for Dabney, but for a 50 minute show, their intro runs too long. Also, because the band is placed centerstage, they get more than equal footing with Dabney, which confuses the focus of the production. Whereas the supporting orchestra is set apart from the performers in classical operas, here Dabney is made to compete with them. When Dabney appears onstage, however, she does come on strong.

Produced by La Mama's Experimental Theater Club, Conjur Woman unfolds like a libretto, but it's a libretto with a loose, sometimes obscure narrative due to the heavy dialect that Manley intended for the role and one-dimensional songs. The gist of the premise is clear: Conjur Woman has used black magic to turn her lover into a tree, and hides him in the forest. Unfortunately, all the trees get chopped down and sculpted into logs, and now she can't find him. It is a heart-wrenching situation that Dabney handles well, but sometimes the long, drawn-out vocals sound garbled even though they're soulful. Also, because the songs are almost all about dealing with this one crisis, the narrative seems more like a vignette rather than a fully-fledged, sequence-by-sequence story.

Director George Ferencz works with Dabney to shape an uninhibited performance that moves from desperation to rage, subtle sexiness, and sorrow. Dabney is fully immersed in the story, but on rare occassions, it appears as if it is an inward struggle that the audience can only share partially. Much of that ties into her placement on the side. Since it doesn't feel as if the production revolves around her, some moments that we take away from her performance seem stolen.

Conjur Woman is an honor to black history month because it explores slavery in a fresh, poignant way. It illuminates the pain of separation in the face of degradation. Although it may not succeed in all areas, it does showcase Dabney's emotional and vocal range and leaves a lasting impression.
Through February 10th. La MaMa e.t.c. is located at 74A East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue & Bowery in NYC. Performances run Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 3pm and 7:30pm. Tickets are $25 for adults and $20 for seniors and students and can be purchased by calling 212-475-7710 or visiting

No comments: