nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 3, 2008
Conjur Woman is unlike anything I've ever seen in theatre; its raw emotional power makes it compelling and memorable. It's a one-act performance by Sheila Dabney of a libretto by the late Beatrice Manley, which has been set to music by Dabney, Jasper McGruder, Ellen Stewart, and Yukio Tsuji. McGruder and Tsuji accompany Dabney on, respectively, harmonica and washboard and guitar and percussion. (Bassist Harry Mann makes a brief appearance at the end.) The music they make is never beautiful, but it reaches deep below the skin to rattle the bones and shake the soul of whoever's listening. It's the sound of anguish and pain, leavened only occasionally with a moment of joy or exaltation—perhaps the most direct way into the broken heart of the woman whose story is told here with such singular eloquence.
We never know her name, this conjur woman. We only know what she's done: to save her lover from slavery, she has turned him into a tree, with disastrous results. She sings (wails; growls, sometimes) of her loss, of her anger, of her futile desire for forgiveness. She shows us the tools of her trade of conjuration:
I believes in the de holy t'ings:
I buries de pins in de eggshells dey eatin'
I coat it wid honey an' de shit o' de snake.
She remembers, sharply and unforgettably, how she transformed her man into a tree in the forest, blindly secure in the knowledge that he'd never be found there (I don't want to give too much away, but it's never in doubt from the opening moments that this story ends in tragedy).
For me, the most vivid moments of all deal with the depths of her feelings for her oppressors:
God be wid me for hatin' dem dat make us do dis
God be wid me in my hatred
God gi' you back to me...
God let me conjur, Conjur out of my hate an' my powah!!
Dabney's work here is extraordinary, all of her energies focused on, well, conjuring this pitiable woman's story for us. Her sounds and her movements are at once precise and enormous; she rivets our attention from first to last.
McGruder's harmonica is stunning, and Tsuji's accompaniment is equally dynamic. (And wait till you see Mann's bass.)
This is a remarkable work of theatre, primal and visceral in the way that it lets a contemporary American audience get close to what it might have been like to see loved ones stolen away and then sold as so much goods or property. Like all great art, its potency comes in letting us transcend our own time and place and occupy, if only briefly and anxiously, another's. This is a particularly apt opening for La MaMa's celebration of Black History Month. The run is short, but well worth catching.