[Editor's Note: To celebrate a recent Earth Day performance of Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower, we're looking back on our conversation from 2017 with the opera's co-creator, Toshi Reagon.]
On November 9th, Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower, an opera adaptation of the late author's brilliant dystopian book, will premiere in Abu Dhabi before returning to the states for its U.S. premiere in North Carolina. Created by activist and musician Toshi Reagon—alongside her mother, Freedom Singer and Sweet Honey in the Rock founder Bernice Johnson Reagon—the new production aims to inspire audiences to persevere and take action before the world of Parable becomes our reality.
Earlier this week, The Portalist's sci-fi consultant Betsy Mitchell—one of Butler's editors—reviewed a work in progress performance of the opera. The Portalist then spoke to Toshi Reagon over the phone about how this bold new production came to be, and where it's going.
Can you talk a little bit about what drew you to adapting Parable of the Sower? Out of all of Butler’s work, what attracted you to that story specifically?
Yeah, I guess you could do any of her books because they’re all so accessible to music and to multiple kinds of storytelling. I think it’s that Parable is different than the other books, I feel like she really was thinking about Jesus, and how does this person come to be and take shape in their community and register their calling. And so it really resonated with me this idea of you can be anybody and really be open to a destiny and articulate it and put it in a form that can be communicated and create community around it. We got a chance to work with Professor Toni Morrison when she was at Princeton, she was teaching at Princeton for a long time, and we were able to do a semester there and teach, my mom and I. And she asked us to think of a text and my mom chose this book. The book lent itself to the music we were teaching which is basically black music across the experiences of my mom and I which ended up being a really wide repertoire of black music. So that felt really good. And it was after that we were saying we should do this, we should sing this book.
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How long ago was that, that you first had this concept of 'oh, we could make this into something'?
I mean, when that happened, that was in the 90s. But you have to actually get the rights to the book, and do all these different things. So by 2008 it looked like it might happen, but it didn’t work out, with New York City Opera. But in all of that time my mom and I, we’d done other work and I had this amazing relationship with The Public Theater and the venue Joe’s Pub and all of the public theater stuff is kind of merged into one big giant family of creation. So with the support of a lot of the people inside that institution, it really got pushed forward in 2015.
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That’s interesting timing obviously, because I think the book is much more in the public conscious now than it was prior to the election, arguably. And there’s so much discussion of how prescient it was, now in particular.
I mean, look. There were a huge group of people who followed this book. Way before the election, activists started sharing this book on Facebook and different things and getting each other to read and really understand that somebody had actually thought about us and particular communities of people who were being put in systemically horrible positions by an ongoing aggressive government. So before the election that really happened, and before this era, Parable has been a thing that if you look at a lot of people’s religion is ‘God is change,' and that happened way before.
So a lot of people have embraced this, I just think whenever you see mainstream culture start to pick something up, people think oh, it's just now, but mainstream media is so late on Butler it’s pathetic. They’re really late. But the rest of us have been absorbing everything for years, and now they're coming into the light, and now there’s an even wider audience. But, you know, she’s been walking the path with everybody for a long time.
That’s an excellent point. Lauren’s hyperempathy has always been a really interesting part of the book for me. I was wondering if you could speak a little bit to what it was like exploring that aspect of her character through music.
Yeah, it was complicated because one of the things with theater is everything is live, so it's like, oh my God if you do this in a movie you can really do so many things cinematically to express what’s happening to her. And on stage we tried a bunch of things, we workshopped it and one of the things we tried is how do we let the audience know that she has this. So that’s a physical thing, like what does the audience see? And it’s more complicated because in the first part of the book she hides it. She doesn’t let people know, so how do we let them know without her letting other people know, it was really weird. We thought, do we have to actually tell them exactly what it is? And so we did it without telling people, and what we realized is that people actually didn’t get it, so we put songs in to express how powerful the story is based on the fact that this is a person with hyperempathy and that is constantly in danger of feeling extreme physical pain and is still very forward moving and willing to put herself in front line positions. So that really becomes a theme in our story, of seeing this person have it, accept it. Her father was like ‘you can withstand this and one day it won’t be there' and she’s like 'no, I have it, this is how I am, this is who I am and I’m going to walk along with that.'
I was really happy Octavia put this in this novel. Many people don't have such an extreme version, but a lot of people you can tell in times of trouble start to become empathic and pick up the energy of where they are. And so I think Octavia put a very extreme condition in the book and was kind of like look, she gets up and walks out of this place. She felt all this physical pain and was still moving. I always tell people there's a lot of hope in Parable. And they’re like, what’s hopeful? And I'm like imagine being Lauren Olamina and watching somebody get shot and feeling like you get shot yourself and then getting up and continuing.
It’s a really scary book but it’s really hopeful as well, I totally agree. So you have your world premiere at the arts center in Abu Dhabi next month, right? Where do you hope the show will go after that performance? I know there’s another one in North Carolina later this year?
No, it’s right afterwards. We fly from Abu Dhabi to North Carolina, and then we do the U.S. premiere at Carolina Performing Arts.
That’s very exciting.
I would like Parable to go as many places as it can. It's a global story, it just just resonates with humans on the planet, and we are creating it in a way that it can be accessible to different kinds of venues, it doesn’t always have to be in a theater. We want to be able to be in dialogue with people, we want to activate some of the things we’ve learned from the books and one of the things we’ve really learned from the book is denial is not your friend, silence is not your friend, and being immobile is not your friend.
Many people are in terrible types of conditions and they need us who are still basking in the wealth of being able to walk out of our doors and get in a car and go to work and ride the train, they need us to be able to shift out of our daily 'Im just gonna do this until it ends' mentality into something else. And people always say to me ‘we're in the time of Parable,’ and I’m like, no you’re not. You're in the time that to stop Parable, that is what our era is. If you're going to use Octavia's timeline we're a little bit late, but the timeline is, that in 2015, 2016, we allowed the ball to roll really fast down the hill and we kind of felt like 'oh, we'll just keep holding on to what we have.' And what we have becomes harder and harder to hold and smaller and smaller, and we get captured by a system. We absolutely support the system, financially we support the system by using the tools of the system that actually entrap us and keep us immobile and we keep having the same fights, and keep letting racism and denial of climate issues and mass incarceration.
We keep letting these things happen that we know are not really about being alive on the planet. Seven, eight more years of that will put all of us in the Parable world. And so this is an urgent story. Usually with theater it takes three, four, five years to get someplace, and I’m like no, we need to talk now. We need to be a part of communities that are activating now, we need to have this dialogue now, we need to support each other now.
Editor's Note: The Portalist’s parent company Open Road Integrated Media publishes a selection of Octavia Butler’s ebooks, including "Parable of the Sower."
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Featured photo from the Arts Emerson Work in Progress performance of "Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower."