CONJURING A RESPONSE
by Kestryl Lowrey
published February 6, 2008
now playing Off Off Broadway through February 10
at La Mama E.T.C.
Who wouldn’t do everything in their power to protect a loved one? Who wouldn’t blame
themselves when that protection fails?
Beatrice Manley’s one-woman folk opera, Conjur Woman, tells the tragic tale of a Conjur
Woman as she tries to save her lover from being sold into slavery by turning him into a tree.
She finds her plans cut short when the tree is then chopped down for logs. Set to music of
harmonica, washboard, and acoustic guitar (to name a few of the myriad instruments), the piece moves in and out of memory, anger, and
There’s no doubt that Sheila Dabney is an extraordinary
singer. Her voice conveys the power and emotion of Conjur Woman, even though the words are
somewhat lost to a heavy Creole accent. In some ways, this is fitting for a piece described as a
“folk opera:” many opera audiences depend on supertitles for translation. Though it may have
detracted from other aspects of the production, there were moments in which I would have appreciated similar amenities.
The action occurs on half of the stage, the other side being devoted to the musicians accompanying Dabney. Even with half the stage at her disposal, Dabney primarily alternates between sitting at a table and
standing on the side. The resulting impression is that, while Dabney’s voice is moving, it
would be nice to see her move a bit more.
Jun Maeda designed a set of rough and unfinished wood for the production, creating a blank canvas for Jeff Tapper’s lights to play
across. Evocative of mood and location, the changes in lighting were sometimes more intriguing
than the changes in song or tempo.
While I can sit and nitpick about things that did or did not work for me in the production, I’ll admit that I end feeling somewhat
ambivalent. It’s not that the piece is not haunting, or that it does not have the potential to
be deeply moving, but simply that, for whatever reason, it just didn’t resonate with me.
kestryl.lowrey @ stageandcinema.com