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Octavia E. Butler's 'Parable of the Sower' Offers Hope Through Concert Experience

Toshi Reagon and company  performing "Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower: A Concert Performance" at ArtsEmerson in 2017. (Courtesy Kevin Yaratola)
Toshi Reagon and company performing "Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower: A Concert Performance" at ArtsEmerson in 2017. (Courtesy Kevin Yaratola)

An increasingly religiously radicalized government. A landscape ravaged by the impacts of climate change. A system that prioritizes profit over people. These aren't descriptors of our present or near future. They're major plot points from Octavia E. Butler's 1993 Afro-futurist novel "Parable of the Sower." The story follows a young black girl named Lauren on her quest for a brighter and more equitable future.

Butler became the first sci-fi writer to receive the MacArthur Fellowship within two years of publishing "Parable of the Sower." Some may say that we're setting a course to collide with the events of Butler's novel, which is set in 2024. But composer and musician Toshi Reagon doesn't think so. "This isn't what our future has to be. What Butler gave us with her work was a blueprint on how to change our course," she says.

Reagon and her mother Bernice Johnson Reagon co-wrote and co-produced the opera "Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower." They're the first to adapt Butler's seminal novel for the stage. The opera would've premiered in Boston at ArtsEmerson in March if the coronavirus pandemic hadn't hit. (The production will now be staged in October.) In 2014, Reagon was granted the rights to the theatrical production of the book by Octavia Butler's estate and in 2015, "Parable of the Sower: The Concert Experience" came to ArtsEmerson. "The path to creating the opera began with those conversations that happened during the concert experience," says Reagon.

On Friday, May 22, for one night only, viewers will be able to stream a full presentation of "Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower: The Concert Experience." The experience will be proceeded and followed by talks with Toshi Reagon and other guests as part of ArtsEmerson's current digital programming initiative, Together Apart. This version of the concert experience was filmed in 2015 at The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi. "We gathered everyone in a circle and we started singing through the music," says Reagon. "This was our way of figuring out what the story was going to be. The more we developed the storyline, the more the other elements, that you see in the opera, started to come in."

The night also kicks off Reagon's Parable Path Boston residency. “Wherever she goes, Reagon creates transformation in her audiences and in the communities where they live,” says ArtsEmerson artistic director David Dower.

Reagon met with local artists and stakeholders for conversations centering cultural change through the arts. "Every time I do this, there's a residency involved, whether or not it's financially supported," Reagon says. "To me, this show must be grounded in [community] activation. ArtsEmerson has met me here in this vision with this residency."

Reagon's focus on engaging local arts communities through dialogue around Butler's work is right in line with Earthseed, the belief system developed by the main character, Lauren Olamina, in "Parable of the Sower." One of the core beliefs is that while change is inevitable, it is up to all of us to have a hand in shaping that change.

"There's a point in the book where Lauren and her people are on the road and they run into a fire," Reagon says. At this point, Lauren has become the leader of a group looking to establish an Earthseed community. But the road to freedom is long, arduous and dangerous. "They run into this fire that they know they can't control and then an earthquake happens. Lauren makes a choice. She cannot control the earthquake or the fire. But she can control the path she and her people take."

Toshi Reagon performs during "Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower: A Concert Performance" at ArtsEmerson in 2017. (Courtesy Kevin Yaratola)
Toshi Reagon performs during "Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower: A Concert Performance" at ArtsEmerson in 2017. (Courtesy Kevin Yaratola)

Much like Lauren choosing and making a path for her people, Reagon hopes that her residency creates pathways to solutions in the spirit of community collaboration. "It's important to me to try to dissolve this idea of borders," she says. "We have to practice togetherness in order to come to an agreement about what our future should and could look like." Through her conversations with local creatives, activists and organizers, Reagon has assembled a team to help lead activities that center the intersectional social issues that impact climate justice in Boston.

Reagon is excited for "Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower: The Concert Experience" to reach new and unique audiences. "This is the one that people can most experience for themselves," she says. "The opera is a production. But these experiences are smaller and intimate and offer a different glimpse into what it's like to authentically connect and engage with one another to create something really beautiful."

Reagon believes that the same tenants of Earthseed are what make theater beautiful. "The piece is never the same, it gets bent and changed depending on where it goes," she says.  "It helps us see the currency that we each have and when I say currency, I mean what we can offer each other." She adds that if we take on the mantle of collective responsibility to ourselves and each other, our future can be quite bright.

In the age of a pandemic, the lessons from Butler's "Parable of the Sower" and the praxis around which Reagon organizes her work seem more relevant and pertinent than ever. "The more you study, the more you realize how inherently interconnected everything is," she says. "In the book, it's part of Lauren's mission to bring her community to space, to the stars. But we're already among the stars. We're right here already. So what are we going to do about it?"


"Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower: A Concert Experience" streams Friday, May 22, at 6 p.m. on ArtsEmerson's YouTube channel and Facebook page.

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Arielle Gray Twitter Arts Engagement Producer
Arielle Gray is the Arts Engagement Producer for The ARTery. She manages its social media, events and curated content.

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