Sowing the Seeds of Hope: The Parable of the Sower Opera by Toshi and Bernice Johnson Reagon

Toshi and Bernice Johnson Reagon’s adaptation of Octavia Butler’s dystopian novel Parable of the Sower is both texturally and metatexually rich. Part rock opera, part concert, part revival, the performance uses Butler’s novel as a reference point rather than being a literal translation of the narrative. Toshi, flanked by two women, not only narrates the action, she also contextualizes Butler’s thematic concerns, and frequently breaks the fourth wall. The audience is encouraged at certain points during the performance to join in by clapping along, and the actors often roam among the seats.

Sower’s plot in the novel is the first person narration of Lauren Olamina who lives in a US on the verge of social and economic collapse. She lives with her family in a gated community with her family and other like-minded people, mostly sheltered from the chaos outside the gates. In this world, capitalism has deformed into mega-corporations that exploit their workers, climate change has turned the West Coast drought-ravaged and wild-fire prone, and the breakdown of social services has given rise to lawlessness and addiction to a drug, Pyro, which makes the addict crave arson. Though she lives in relative safety, Lauren is a Cassandra-type prophet who can see that it’s only a matter of time before what’s outside comes in. First, her rebellious older brother ventures outside and returns injured. Then her beloved father never returns from his weekly visit outside. Finally, the gates are breached by a violent gang. Lauren becomes a de facto leader of the survivors as they search for a safe new settlement. Along the way, Lauren “sows the seeds” of her pragmatic philosophy, called Earthseed. Earthseed proposes that God is Change, and you can either resist or be proactive about shifts in circumstance. Pretty soon, Lauren gathers followers, who see hope and solace in her carefully curated believes.

The Reagons’ score tells the story through songs that mix folk, blues, rock and gospel. All of the performers (including Toshi Reagon, who also plays guitar) have sterling voices. Marie Tatti Aqeel, who plays Lauren, has a particularly powerful solo that showcases her full range in a song about her missing father. Reagon’s frequent informal asides were witty and referenced current events that Butler eerily predicted, from oligarchy to cryptocurrency to social media’s corrosive effect on the population. (Butler also predicted the rise of a populist nativist who would Make American Great again in the follow-up Parable of the Talents). Somehow, Reagon and her mother turned the dark pessimistic story into a joyous explosion of hopeful survival. Much like Earthseed’s tenets. The final song in the opera was a chillingly beautiful rendition of what sounded like a call-and-response gospel hymn.

It’s a celebration of resilience and community.

-Seen on April 29, 2022 at the Strathmore Music Center

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