What better way to start observing Black History Month than to take in Sheila Dabney's spellbinding performance of Conjur Woman, Beatrice Manley's one-act folk opera? Backed by music performed on stage by the redoubtable Yukio Tsuji (guitar and percussion) and Jasper McGruder (harmonica and percussion), with tunes composed by the performers along with LaMama's founder, Ellen Stewart, Dabney belts out the Conjur Woman's tale of woe in a series of songs and hollers that vividly suggest the music of slavery times.
Conjur Woman turns her husband into a tree so the slave traders won't get him. Alas, she can't save him from the sawmill. That's the story in an acornshell. But what a telling. Jun Maeda's simple, beautiful set of jagged wooden walls changes color and mood from song to song (Jeff Tapper's lighting design is superb), serving as both cabin and woods. With a little bag of charms and herbs, a rope, and the passion in her rich, piercing, worldly-dark voice, Dabney takes us into the heart of darkness.
The simple story roils with irony and allegory. Conjur Woman's magic is so strong it gives her power over nature itself – but only in her homeworld. Foreign gods (Christianity, modernity) render her charms inert. "God don't like that," she admits of her conjuring. But later: "God be with me in my hatred. God bring him back to me, God keep us together, God take us out of here." But even invoking the Christian God by three names (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost) can't help her, and at the sawmill, the "machine ain't got feelings. Can't conjur machine."
We, however, are made to feel the full force of the conjuring. This isn't "Poof, you're a tree." Conjur Woman sings us a visceral description of how the man's body, part by part, becomes tree, and her image of his eyes still visible behind the wood, shining in silent terror as he's chopped into boards, is harrowing. This magic spell is no plot device; it's the substance and grain of the story.
Though drawn from the black experience, the music through which the tale is told – and the show as whole, staged by La Mama's Resident Director, George Ferencz – should resonate with any thinking being. The gulf between the "old ways" of wonder and nature and the new ways of technology is evident in cultures the world over. Though many centuries old, the battle is still with us, ever raging, if sometimes obscured by day-to-day life, inside our simian brains. Conjur Woman is a deep draught of wise wonder and emotional magic, with a mesmerizing central performance by the remarkable Shelia Dabney.