Ogresse is the latest work from Grammy-Award winning jazz singer and composer Cécile McLorin Salvant, making its UK debut at Edinburgh International Festival.
The Miami-born singer draws on her French-Haitian heritage to weave a dark fairytale reminiscent of both the Brothers Grimm and Haitian Voodoo. There are talking animals and villagers with pitchforks, as well as snakes and a frankly astonishing amount of murder.
The story follows the titular ogress as she grows from a young girl with “skin the colour of chocolate” into a “vast” grown woman living in the forest. A posse of local villagers try to kill her but she eats them all, and thereafter she is left alone.
But loneliness is eating her up and when a young man confesses his love to her she doesn’t want to believe him but… is it possible to love a monster?
Conducted by Darcy James Argue, McLorin Salvant leads a thirteen-piece jazz orchestra on a musical journey taking in jazz, country, baroque and old Hollywood-esque string movements. The eclectic mix of instruments helps build the ogress’s world, aided by a screen behind the performers on which rough cartoon-like drawings are used to emphasise key scenes in the plot.
This bewitching mix of complex musical genres and simplistic storytelling is a great canvas for Cécile to display her power as a vocalist. She sings for almost the entire 1 hour 30-minute runtime without flagging, and the standing ovation she received from the audience is a testament to her power and skill as a performer.
Race and the perception, and fetishisation, of black women is explicitly woven into the show’s DNA. In the show notes, Cécile McLorin Salvant references Sarah Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman exhibited to 19th-century freakshow audiences as “the Hottentot Venus,” and the dehumanisation and “othering” of Black women is juxtaposed within the lyrics with the ogress’s all-too-human need for companionship, love and self-acceptance.
Ogresse can be experienced as a complicated search for self-love in a world that prioritises perceptions of Black women over the lived experiences of those women, or it can be enjoyed as a simple, dark and sometimes humorous fairytale. And it is funny – the story is peppered with moments of levity that keep things from getting too grim, and provide the best kind of counterpoint to the heavy themes being explored.
The real genius of this show is that the secondary interpretation of it – as ‘just’ a fairytale – does not in any way diminish its power. The fairytales we tell say so much about ourselves and what is valued within our culture. And why, when audiences will readily love an anti-hero or even an outright villain (Hannibal Lecter anyone?) is it so fantastical for an ogress who eats people to be worthy of love?
With grateful thanks to Heather Simmonds for this review.