Toshi Reagon’s opera “The Parable of the Sower” draws attention
everything you touch
everything you change
The only lasting truth is
Is the change.
Octavia E. Butler’s lyrics from 1993 still ring loud and true today. After major life-changing events over the past two years: a global pandemic, war in Eastern Europe, devastating climate change and enlargement economic disparities, it is overwhelmingly obvious that the only lasting truth is change. Butler researched “Parable of the Sower” throughout the 1980s, publishing the novel in 1993. It warns of a future (the year 2024) in which the world is on fire, public resources are at risk. privatizing and fascist politicians rule. Sound familiar?
The world ignored Butler’s warnings in 1993. We are now two years away from the future she predicted, and her prophecies are coming true – little is being done to change the course of our future. However, creators Toshi Reagon and his mother Bernice Johnson Reagon created a mighty effort to amplify Butler’s message through drama and song in their lyrical adaptation of “Parable of the Sower”. After nearly two decades of development, the opera first performed in 2017 but was put on hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. The opera’s performance at the Power Center for Performing Arts on Friday, March 25 marked its return to the stage after two years of uncertainty and anticipation. Friday’s performance was followed by a conversation with Toshi Reagon, moderated by Dr. Toni Pressley-Sanon of Eastern Michigan University.
Expectations did not meet reality in the case of the opera “Parable” – in the best possible way. Opera is usually assumed to be fine art for intellectuals, with extravagant costumes, gold-studded sets, piercing vibratos and full orchestras. Reagon refused to maintain these classist barriers, turning elitist opera into accessible entertainment while maintaining its integrity as a high-level work of art. With minimal decor and relaxed costumes, there are no distractions from the music carrying the purpose of the narrative.
Throughout the opera, a modern orchestra – cello, violin, bass, piano, guitar and drums played by five musicians – sits on stage. At the start of the show, Toshi Reagon and his acoustic guitar take center stage, flanked by two Talents (Helga Davis and Shelley Nicole), where they remain throughout the evening. Reagon opens with a powerful message to the audience, highlighting a continued lack of action in the face of societal decay, in the face of rapid global change. “We’re here to sing a story about how Octavia (Butler) made a child see God as a change, the only lasting truth,” Reagon proclaimed before sitting down and strumming the opening notes of the tale.
The opera that followed was a breathless representation of our modern dystopia. The protagonist, Lauren Olamina (played by Marie Tatti Aqeel), was born into a walled community outside of Los Angeles, locked away from the fiery violence the world has descended into. It becomes clear that Lauren is at odds with her community’s stagnation, their determination to stick to old customs and religions as the world beyond their wall rapidly changes. Although not a loving and pleasant community, they recognize the importance of cooperation and community in their quest for survival. When this community is destroyed, Lauren has the opportunity to create a new community, governed by the principles of change.
Community is an important theme throughout the story, not just on the stage between the characters, but also between the audience and the narrative. The first act is dedicated to building community and bringing us all together in one room. The house lights were not immediately dimmed, and actors frequently entered the audience, using the aisles as an extension of their stage. Throughout the opera, the audience was encouraged to sing or applaud. We weren’t just passively watching a performance, we were actively engaging in a community. In conversation after the play, Reagon said, “History is so complicated, but no more so than our daily lives. I mean how fundamental it is to work together, with people. This is the essence of the “parable of the sower”: the only way out of difficult times is to work together.
Translating these important lessons from Butler’s novel onto a stage and sharing them through song allows the message to hit harder, deeper, harder. With lights, music and bodies, Reagon tells a compelling tale of change. The opera incorporates the sounds of the spirituals, Motown and Zeppelindrawing on decades of musical history as a means of characterization, as well as a symbol of the timelessness of the issues represented in the story.
Music was also an essential tool for evoking emotion; the fear, desperation and outrage sung on stage echoes the same fear, desperation and outrage being felt across the world right now. The story reflects the reality we face and exposes the urgency we should to feel. After the opera, Reagon encouraged the audience to “express outrage at even the smallest thing that’s wrong” and to “let your outrage be your superpower, coupled with joy and community”.
In 2022, we can no longer afford to be passive. The world ignored Octavia Butler’s warning when this novel was published in 1993, and we are now living in the dystopia she predicted. Reagon’s opera is a strong reminder that we can no longer ignore Butler’s message. We cannot continue to fight community or fight change. As Lauren Olamina teaches, we must work together, we must embrace change, adapt and grow.
The daily’s editor Maya Levy can be reached at email@example.com.