"...(Sheila Dabney) creates a potent spell seasoned with the power of myth...at its best moments, the production has the incantatory impact of a fever dream."
- Andy Webster, NY Times
""Conjur Woman is unlike anything I've ever seen in theatre; its raw emotional power makes it compelling and memorable."
- Martin Denton, nytheatre.com
"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? "
- Jon Sobel, BlogCritics.org
“Sheila Dabney is hypnotic in the one-woman folk opera Conjur Woman. From the moment she shuffles onto the worn boards of the beautiful bare stage (designed by Jun Maeda) until the final searing moments of this 50-minute piece, she captivates with her ability to inhabit the space of a 19th-century American slave.
- Jerry Portwood, Backstage
Check out previews!
- Show Business Weekly
- Home News Tribune
- Daily News "Perfect 10" Pick!!
In honor of Black History Month, we are proud to present Beatrice Manley’s "Conjur Woman", a dramatic folk opera chillingly sung by Obie-Winner Sheila Dabney and directed by George Ferencz, a resident director at La MaMa. Original music for "Conjur Woman" is composed by Ellen Stewart along with Sheila Dabney, Harry Mann, Jasper McGruder and Yukio Tsuji, and is played on a cornucopia of instruments including a harmonica, washboard, jug, acoustic guitar, bass and percussion…think 1800s music of the slave.
In Conjur Woman, Beatrice Manley’s deeply haunting and poetic one-woman folk opera, a conjur woman uses spells and potions to turn her lover into a tree so that he cannot be sold into slavery. Tragically, even the conjur woman’s powers cannot stop the tree from being chopped down and made into logs. Conjur Woman is a compelling piece that moves in and out of memory, panic, agony and clarity, leaving us profoundly moved. The title Conjur Woman is an homage to Billie Holiday.
“Ah spells you ‘n case Ah lose you
Day gon’ sell you
Day gon’ sen’ you away
Dis’ll hold ‘em off, daahlin’
Day don’ know you a tree” ~ from Conjur Woman
Author Beatrice Manley’s sixty-year career in the theater started on Broadway and ended in the Los Angeles avant-garde scene. She was a co-founder and leading actress in the famed San Francisco Actor’s Workshop, where she originated the lead role in the U.S. Premiere of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage.
Sheila Dabney won an Obie Award for Best Actress in Maria Irene Fornes’ "Sarita", was nominated by the NY Innovative Theatre Awards for Outstanding Actress in "The Emperor Jones" and won a LA Dramalogue Award for "A Midsummer Night’s Dream". She was in Michael Koukiyannis’ Broadway production of "The Bacchae" with Irene Pappas. Ms. Dabney is a graduate of the Julliard School of Drama and The Edith Skinner Institute.
Director George Ferencz has been a resident director of La MaMa for over 25 years and curator of the Experiments Play Reading Series for 10 years. He has staged several festivals including the La MaMa Festival of Sam Shepard’s jazz plays, ShepardSets, and a festival of Shepard’s Rock’n’Roll plays, Shep’nRep. George has directed regionally at Syracuse Stage, Cleveland Playhouse, San Diego Rep, Pittsburgh Playhouse and Actors’ Theatre of Louisville.
The design team includes Obie-Winner/La MaMa resident set designer Jun Maeda, who has created a unique bass instrument for the show, and light designer Jeff Tapper.
Visti playwright's website www.beatricemanley.com
A Mournful Woman's Magic Call Forth Slavery Times
By Andy Webster
February 6, 2008
New York Times
In “Conjur Woman,” a folk opera for a single performer, the venerable actress Sheila Dabney, working with three proficient musicians onstage at the La MaMa Annex, creates a potent spell seasoned with the power of myth.
At the beginning Jasper McGruder’s lone, bluesy harmonica pierces the darkness and summons the piece’s beseeching, elegiac mood. Then the lights go up on Jun Maeda’s rustic, shacklike set: on one side are Mr. McGruder, who also plays washboard, and Yukio Tsuji on guitar, later joined by a bassist, Harry Mann; on the other is Ms. Dabney, barefoot and clad in the Civil War-era attire of a slave. At hand is a jug of whiskey and a bag with magical contents.
She plaintively addresses the walls, as if searching for another slave, her beloved. Her tone is enraptured: “Out of dem all he is de smartest an’ de strongest — an’ — he fetch a good price.” He escapes from overseers and is hunted by dogs. She plots his rescue.
A turbaned sorceress, she pulls trinkets from the bag, intent on using her enchantments to transform her beloved into a tree. But as with Daphne’s fate as Apollo pursued her, escape comes at a price. When the white man finds the tree and cuts it down, it is the Conjur Woman who mourns.
The play — by the avant-garde actress and educator Beatrice Manley, with a haunting acoustic score by Ms. Dabney, Mr. McGruder, Ellen Stewart and Mr. Tsuji, and directed by George Ferencz — gains dramatic heft over its 45 minutes, though it could use greater variation in its dirgelike pacing. By the end, the character’s protracted suffering can grow repetitious. But at its best moments, the production has the incantatory impact of a fever dream.
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.
by Jon Sobel, blogcritics.org
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.