Updated: Jul 23, 2022
How you do?
So, I’m currently in Montserrat doing research for a play that I'm writing. This is through my DYCP grant from the Arts Council. And it is my second time researching internationally. Yay! The pictures and the videos that I’m posting on socials are not doing Montserrat justice.
It's unique and exquisite. I'm biased, but it's true. So much has happened, and there are so many stories to tell.
For those who don't know, the play that I’m writing is called Pastor Fi Dead. It’s based in Leeds and is about 3 Black queer friends who plot to sacrifice a pastor because he murdered a Black trans woman. The first 20 minutes were shared at the Royal Court and received a highly positive response.
I will now be further developing what I have started. And I'm writing this play since there is an epidemic of Black trans women being murdered, and I’m personally not satisfied with the consequences of these crimes.
Therefore, I have created a world where real justice is served. I am also writing this play since many Black queer experiences, and Black experiences in general in the UK, are very London-centric, which is so boring!
I have always been interested in the supernatural. I used to love Charmed and
Buffy the Vampire Slayer when I was younger. Still have a bit of a soft spot for both shows. But the majority of the characters were white and straight, except for Willow and Tara in Buffy, two white lesbian witches.
And that’s not to say there isn't anything Black, queer and supernatural out there, but I would like there to be more. And since going to Trinidad in 2018 and attending Orisha ceremonies, my interest in African diaspora religions developed.
Pastor Fi Dead is a part of a wider body of work exploring African diaspora religions through a queer and pop culture lens. The other works are Idol, 3 Monday Midnights and JUMBIE. I'm intrigued by engaging with the practices my ancestors were engaging with and that colonialism tried so hard to suppress.
What am I researching exactly? Hmm. I need to be a bit careful because a lot of Caribbean people are freaked out by it. This thing is called Obeah. It’s complex and not easy to define. But to give you an idea, I would say it is a spiritual practice that was brought over to the Caribbean by enslaved West Africans. Some people would say Obeah is like Voodoo.
It is, but it also isn't.
There are similarities in the African diaspora religions and practices, but there are also differences. When you think of Voodoo, what comes to mind? Do you think of Haitian Vodou? Catholicism? West African Vodun? Zombies? Loa? Animal sacrifice? Ancestors?
It isn't so straightforward, is it?
But what is the practice of Obeah exactly? I couldn't tell you like I could tell you what Catholics believe. As I said, it isn’t easy to define. And maybe it shouldn’t be.
The Obeah Act 1904 (Leeward Islands) was put in place by white Europeans to prevent it from being practised. Even though people were and are still practising in secret. I have engaged with the Obeah Act and it states:
3. The expression “Obeah” means obeah as ordinarily understood and practiced, and includes witchcraft and working or pretending to work by spells or by professed occult or supernatural power.
The expression “instruments of obeah” means anything ordinarily used in the practice of obeah or intended to be so used in such practice, and anything used or intended to be used by a person and pretended by such person to be possessed of any occult
or supernatural power.
Let’s keep in mind, whatever is listed in the Obeah Act is what white Europeans thought the practice was. Not necessarily what people who practice Obeah would say it is. It also says:
6. Any person who pretends or professes to tell fortunes, or uses any subtle craft, means or device, by palmistry or otherwise, or pretends to cure injuries or disease,
to intimidate or effect any purpose by means of any charm, incantation, or other pretended supernatural practice shall be liable to be imprisoned for any period not exceeding six months.
Ooh, the colonists were scared! They didn't like anything they couldn't control. And enslaved Africans practising Obeah was and is an act of resistance. So, no wonder they put a whole law in place. Flogging is also another form of punishment that is mentioned in the Obeah Act, too. Drama!
In some places, such as Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago and St Lucia, Obeah has been decriminalised. But I have learnt that Obeah is still alive in Montserrat, even though it is illegal. One wouldn't think anything is going on if they came to the island, but people are very good at hiding it. Don't tell anyone I said that, I could get arrested. Ha!
In the play, the characters practice a combination of Ifá (Yoruba religion) and Obeah. Hence, my research. Some people talk as if they know a lot about Obeah, but they don’t. And they also assume the worst, calling it bad juju or black magic. There is a saying, “Somebody put Obeah pon he/she/them.” But what does that mean exactly?
It seems like Obeah is a general term for anything that’s magic related, especially if it comes from Black Caribbean people. Similar to how people say Voodoo, but they don't know or understand what it is. I have even been called a Voodoo man myself in the past.
I am just trying to learn as much as possible to help create material for Pastor Fi Dead.
I'm interested in all the different perspectives of Obeah. However, a lot of opinions do come from colonialism. The colonised mind is unfortunately thriving.
An Obeah man, woman or person could be either good or evil. And it seems a lot of people only associate Obeah with evil, which isn't the case. I need to keep in mind that what I am writing is fiction. And yes, I should take it seriously, but I should also allow myself to have some fun.
I have come across a range of things when researching Obeah. There are Obeah people that have clients who are everyone from gangsters, politicians and pastors. People are being healed and allegedly poisoned. There is an abundance of things that come up concerning Obeah. The more I read, the more excited I get.
I want to acknowledge some people who have done similar work and research
before me. And I have had some engaging and eye-opening conversations with them.
Those people are The Right Honourable Dr Vernie Clarice Barnes OE (curator), Khadijah Ibrahiim (poet/live artist) and Edgar Nkosi White (playwright/novelist).
I want to thank them for their knowledge, advice and guidance. I have no shame in admitting that I'm still learning, and I am in no way an expert on the things I am exploring. But I am learning more and more each day. And I look forward to seeing where my research takes me next.
I am currently reading Obeah, Race and Racism: Caribbean Witchcraft in the English Imagination by Eugenia O’ Neal. So, I will leave it on a quote from the book:
“Missionaries and plantation owners inveighed against Obeah at every opportunity, but the belief in it became woven into the fabric of black life on the plantations and in the new societies. Away from the prying eyes and condemnation of whites, Obeah helped balance the scales of justice and put the power of the supernatural on the side of its devotees. On any given night, a woman might knock on the Obeah man’s door to request a love potion or a man might come wanting to “set” Obeah for whoever had robbed his plantation ground.” (O’Neal, 2020, p. 4)