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

On Unruly Bodies and Otherness: The inspiration for ‘Hairsbreadth.’

I hate myself.

Let me be more specific. I hate my physical body. 

I’m too short. Standing at 5’1.5 I’ve been called Gary Coleman and Webster, shrimp, Napoleon, shorty, and midget. I’ve been ignored, not taken seriously, and even had people cancel dates upon learning my height.

I’m too fat. On my frame, 150 lbs makes me look like the mayor of Munchkinland. My tummy has stretch-marks and I have gynecomastia—more commonly known as “man boobs.” I avoid looking at my body in a mirror and my silhouette embarrasses me. My odd shape makes clothes shopping a herculean effort.

The skin around my eyes is dark and burned looking. I look like a raccoon, my dark brown eyes set deep within a charred ring.

I think of myself as a troll, a hobbit, an imp.

Then there’s my voice. It’s deep, but femme. I’m always mistaken for a woman on the phone, and many people, upon meeting me, assume I’m gay. Which, of course, is true and yet another thing I struggle with. (In the ever-changing gay male classification system, I am uncategorizable. Not Wolf, Otter, Twink. Not Daddy, or Bear).

There are days when I wish that were like Doro, the mindforce character in Octavia E Butler’s Patternmaster series. Like Doro, I would surf from body to body, trying on new physicalities like new clothes.

The black body is heavily policed. We are the wrong color. The wrong shape. Our lips are too big. Our buttocks too voluptuous. Our blackness is fetishized, criminalized, and pathologized.  

Sarah Baartman, exploited as the Hottentot Venus

Black hair, in particular, is demonized. The adjectives used to describe it—coarse, nappy, wooly, kinky, wiry—are in stark contrast to the way white hair is described. White women have silky tresses, fountains and plumes and cascades of follicles in a spectrum of color. Natural black hairstyles are treated as punchlines. A thousand Halloween costumes feature non-black people in dreadlock or Afro wigs. Black hair has to be tamed, chemically altered, woven with extensions, hidden by wigs. Students are suspended from school for wearing unprocessed hair. Boys are ‘Sideshow Bob,’ and girls and women are deemed unprofessional or unfeminine, and unkempt. My relationship with my hair goes through phases. Sometimes, I hate it. And sometimes, I love it. 

Unfortunately, some of the policing of black physicality comes from within the black community. Some of the most vicious takedowns of black presentation comes from other black people. Colorism, and passing are very much alive and active.

Hairsbreadth, the novel-in-progress that will be serialized by Broken Eye Books (and eventually turned in a printed book), asks the question: What if the very thing we’re castigated for—our blackness—was instead the source of great power? The character Zelda came to me with her deep dark skin and ‘unruly’ hair that could heal and destroy, create wonder and horror, and begged me to tell her story. The story is borne out of the chthonic crucible of self hatred and a colonized mind. It’s a way to cast off toxic ideas, and honor the beauty of idiosyncrasy and otherness. 

The first chapter, “Girl, Uprooted” is available if you subscribe to the Patreon

Octavia E. Butler’s 71st

The Google Doodle today features the late Octavia E. Butler. She is one of my muses. Her bleak, imaginative speculative fiction thematically explored the trauma of oppression. She’s known as a Science Fiction writer, but she also wrote horror (Fledgling, and Clay’s Ark qualify).

OEB

I heard OEB speak twice. She didn’t read from her fiction. But her speech was as powerful as her fiction. You read my blog post about her speech here (The Parable of Octavia E. Butler).

She was taken from us too soon.

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