Act Two of Treemonisha opens in the woods with a conclave of conjurors singing “Superstition.” Joplin’s stage directions tell us, “A wasp nest is hanging on a bush.” As Simon lists his fears, the chorus agrees: “‘Tis true, ‘tis true, /We all believe ‘tis true.” When Simon sings of shaking in fear when passing a graveyard at night, the chorus responds, “We’ll run.” Supposed to possess supernatural powers to ensure good luck and counteract any evil, the conjurers appear to have little control over their lives.
As “Superstition” ends and “Treemonisha in Peril” begins, Zodzetrick and Luddud signal their approach, bringing with them the kidnapped Treemonisha. Joplin quickly tells us that the conjurors in the woods neither expected her, nor know her:
When the conjurors decide to punish Treemonisha for opposing their luck bag sales, they needn’t look far for their means--the wasp nest hanging on the bush. However, perhaps we should wonder why the conjurors selected this meeting place. If they did not know or expect Treemonisha, they could not have planned to punish her with wasps. Why had the conjurors chosen to meet beside a wasp nest when the woods surely offered safer spots?
For us today, Harry Middleton Hyatt’s Hoodoo—Conjuration—Witchcraft—Rootwork supplies possible reasons for this seemingly reckless choice. Joplin's contemporaries may have understood more than today’s opera goer or listener.
Self-Protection or Business
The conjurors may have believed the wasp nest would help them.
According to Hyatt's hoodoo informants, wasp nests have protective powers.
When the corn huskers' joyous ring dance ends, Treemonisha wants to make a head garland like those worn by her friends for the harvest celebration. Her plan to cut leaves from the tree in front of her house prompts her mother Monisha's plea:
No! not a leaf from that tree take.
After Treemonisha and others ask to learn why that tree is “so dear,” Monisha responds with her aria “The Sacred Tree.”
Such trees appear in religious beliefs throughout the world, in primitive religions as well as the world’s major religions. In perhaps the earliest book devoted to the topic, The Sacred Tree, or The Tree in Religion and Myth (1897), Mrs. J. H. Philpot comments on this universal archetype:
After Treemonisha criticizes the conjuror Zodzetrick for preying on others' superstitions rather than doing honest labor and again after her friend Remus explains how her education will “break the spell of superstition in the neighborhood,” Zodzetrick threatens and attempts to intimidate:
You accuse me wrong for injury I’s not done,
I am a retired community college professor and the great-granddaughter of composer, orchestrator, arranger, organist, and teacher William Christopher O'Hare.
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