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Octavia Butler’s Prescient ‘Parable of the Sower’ Comes Alive as an Opera

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A group of actors portrays traveling apocalypse survivors from Octavia Butler's sci-fi classic 'Parable of the Sower.'
Octavia E. Butler’s 'Parable of the Sower' runs May 5-6 at Zellerbach Hall. (Ehud Lazin)

All that you touch

You Change.

All that you Change

Changes you.

The only lasting truth

Is Change.

God

Is Change.

 Earthseed: The Books of the Living

 Saturday, July 20, 2024

One thing that’s changed since Octavia E. Butler first published her 1993 dystopian masterpiece Parable of the Sower is that her prescience has come more clearly and disturbingly into focus. Hailed as a landmark of Afrofuturism, the novel and its sequel, 1998’s Parable of the Talents, read increasingly like tomorrow’s headlines.

Unfolding in the journal of teenaged Lauren Olamina, a character with all the revelatory power of Huck Finn, the Joads and other American castoffs forced to hit the road for survival, Parable of the Sower describes California as a chaotic landscape where water is privatized and the weather is more unstable and extreme due to global warming.

Law and order has broken down as new illegal drugs drive people to commit wanton acts of destruction. Anyone without protections afforded by wealth is subject to looting and violence at the hands of the dispossessed. Did I mention that the novel opens on July 20, 2024?

For vocalist, guitarist and composer Toshi Reagon and her legendary mother, civil rights activist, scholar and Sweet Honey in the Rock founder Bernice Johnson Reagon, that impending date served as a beacon. They’ve been developing the music for decades, and ended up bringing Parable of the Sower to the stage as a “congregational opera.” Co-directed by Eric Ting and Signe V. Harriday, the latest production makes its Bay Area premiere May 5 and 6 at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, presented by Cal Performances.

Toshi Reagon, a life-long science fiction fan who read Parable when it was first published, saw Butler’s story as a creative challenge. “I thought Parable would be innovative for us to witness,” she says, noting that the unspecified apocalypse that sets the scene for the novel seemed a long way off in 1993. “I thought, ‘That’s terrible, but that can’t happen.’”

In recent years, however, events have made her feel “a desperation to get it out. I didn’t want to go into 2024 without something in my hand,” she says, particularly as the news increasingly came to echo Butler’s tale. “There is no way we can all be okay with the way governments are leading the planet. Octavia makes the options so clear. You take these steps or you’re on the highway.”

Part of what sets Parable apart from other classic dystopian tales like George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is that Butler offers far more than a vision of Hobbesian humanity at its worst. She also details a path forward, via Lauren’s epigraphic philosophy about change as the universe’s governing force. Teased out and applied to envisioning a new society, her creed resonates deeply with African American music’s deepest roots, spirituals and blues, which defined, healed and sustained embattled communities through extreme depredations.

Toshi Reagon plays her acoustic guitar on a dimly lit theater stage.
Toshi Reagon in Octavia E. Butler’s ‘Parable of the Sower,’ which premieres in the Bay Area May 5 and 6 at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. (Reed Hutchinson)

If there’s anything Toshi wants people to understand about Parable it’s that “it really is an opera,” she says. “It is not a musical. No one is going to stop and talk to you. We sing for a few hours, and we definitely follow the arc of the book. The first half of the story is in a community where the trouble is coming. The second half is in the unknown, trying to get somewhere else and survive. There’s a lot of narrative, so even if you didn’t read the books the story is recognizable.”

Parable’s birth was midwifed by Toni Morrison. In the late 1990s, she invited Bernice Johnson Reagon to teach an Atelier course at Princeton University. Given all her responsibilities Sweet Honey in the Rock was touring internationally Toshi took over from her mom to teach half the semester. After noticing Princeton’s numerous student a cappella ensembles, she realized the time was ripe to start writing music for Parable.

The Reagons ended up composing dozens of songs, though it wasn’t until about five years later that they started to shape the material into a narrative. A workshop in 2008 set it on course for a premiere at the New York City Opera, but the company ended up folding in 2013 (it returned from bankruptcy three years later). The public first got a glimpse at some of the material in 2014 when Toshi Reagon closed her annual birthday concert at Joe’s Pub with a set of Parable songs.

“She presented three acts of music, and one was of this show no one had heard,” says Eric Ting, who recently stepped down after a brilliant seven-year run as artistic director at Cal Shakes. His wife Meiyin Wang was director of New York’s Under the Radar Festival at the time, and quickly booked the Reagons to present a concert version of Parable at the Public Theatre in 2015.

Ting came on as director, “someone who could shepherd a narrative out of this huge collection of songs,” he says. “We started with four hours of content and that was only a fraction of what they’d written! There’s still music that I’ve never heard, and Toshi has brought plenty of new music to the project.”

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Part of the challenge was threading the needle in adapting beloved literary works with ardent followings while creating an opera accessible to people who’ve never read Butler. During Ting’s tenure at Cal Shakes, he brought Toshi in to do a developmental workshop, but the production she envisioned was too ambitious for the company to tackle.

“It’s a big show, 15 performers, a five-piece rock band, and they all travel from out of town, so there are flights and rooms,” Ting says. “That was one of the challenges.”

Parable’s extended development speaks both to Reagon’s dogged commitment and the opera’s organic evolution. In the past few years, Cal Performances has presented several disappointing high-profile shows that were rushed into Zellerbach without the necessary time and resources. Reagon formed her own production company and steadily pushed the boulder up the mountain with her team, honing the work year after year.

Reagon often creates ancillary programming around the production, community building that she calls the Parable Path. Whenever possible she sets up a residency at a theater, and often holds song sessions, teaching people Parable pieces so they can join in the production. There wasn’t time to develop many Parable Path activities for the Cal Performances engagement, but she’s got her eye on coming back to the Bay Area. Ultimately, Parable of the Sower reflects the novels upon which its based, drawing strength from sacred and vernacular Black culture to offer a path away from societal collapse.

“I think the innovation in terms of contemporary performance is that we don’t see the work itself as a whole,” Toshi says. “So much is about urging or challenging our communities to confront the fragility of the world we live in. How we survive is so tied up in how we relate to each other.”

Parable of the Sower makes its Bay Area debut at Zellerbach Hall at UC Berkeley on May 5 and 6. Details here.

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