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. But despite the raspy, rough sound of Dabney's voice and her exquisite ability to screw her face into contorted versions of pain, joy and fear, there's a strange hollowness of emotion in the piece.
Musicians Jasper McGruder and Yukio Tsuji are seated one side of the stage; Dabney's side is separated by a half-wall of jagged boards and is set with a simple table and chair as well as an ominous rope hanging limp. Dabney begins to sing the blues, accompanied by McGruder on harmonica and Tsuji on guitar and percussion, and the power of her delivery is unquestionable. But as she begins to unravel the story through song — of her lover and how she attempts to save him by using magic to turn him into a tree — something is quashed. Everything is there: the music is stirring, the singing superior, and the lighting design by Jeff Tapper inspired.
The problem seems to arise from writer Beatrice Manley's decision to create a scenario that relies so heavily on the nostalgia of stereotypical slave narratives and then transferring it to an ostensibly white, Eurocentric medium. Of course, there's no reason why this exchange shouldn't happen, just as white rock musicians took inspiration from uniquely black American music styles. But opera requires conflict, and Dabney is forced to perform alone until the final minutes, the lyrics not enough to conjure the tension needed to affect more than an impassioned plea. At the very end, she's joined by the ghost of her lover (Harry Mann), and we finally get more than a wonderful soundtrack. We get soul.
Presented by and at La MaMa E.T.C.,
66 E. Fourth St., NYC.
Jan. 31-Feb. 10. Thu.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 3 and 7:30 p.m.
(212) 475-7710 or www.lamama.org.