Reagons’ ‘Parable of the Sower’ Sci-Fi opera a cautionary tale
Is it science fiction or fact? Is it an opera or a folk/rock concert on a giant scale? A prescient or present-day look at society?
The renowned late sci-fi writer Octavia E. Butler’s works, which explore the brutality of dystopian life, have been transformed into “Parable of the Sower,” a stage happening created, with music and lyrics, by the mother-daughter team of singer-scholar-activist Bernice Johnson Reagon and musician/composer Toshi Reagon.
The piece, which has been in the workshop process for a few years, made its world premiere in early November in the United Arab Emirates in association with the Arts Center at New York University/Abu Dhabi, directed by Eric Ting. Its United States debut followed Nov. 16-17 at the Carolina Performing Arts Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The work, based on the novels “Parable of the Sower” (1993) and “Parable of the Talents” (1998), comes to the Quick Center for the Arts at Fairfield University on Saturday, Feb. 3.
Often described as a “genre-defying work of political theater,” the Quick Center said the Reagons’ piece is “soulful and timely, (and) reminds us all of the power of the human spirit.” The opera will feature a cast of 20 singers and musicians, Toshi Reagon said, and much of the score explores about 200 years of black music.
In a telephone chat from her mother’s Washington, D.C., home, Toshi Reagon said she and her mother have been longtime fans of Butler, who won a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 1995, the first science-fiction writer to be so honored. Both agreed that a project to spread Butler’s work through music seemed timely.
In Butler’s 2006 obituary, the New York Times wrote: “Throughout Ms. Butler’s career, the news media made much of the fact that she was an African-American woman writing science fiction, traditionally a white male bastion. But in interviews and in her work itself she left no doubt that her background equipped her spectacularly well to portray life in hostile dystopias where the odds of survival can be almost insurmountable.”
Fairfield University’s Quick Center for the Arts, 200 Barlow Road. Saturday, Feb. 3, 8 p.m. $50-$40, $30 member, $5 for Fairfield U. students. 203-254-4010, quickcenter.fairfield.edu
Reagon said the opera is set in the 2020s, when society has devolved into chaos, much in part to religious fundamentalism, water shortages, crumbling infrastructure, corporate greed, racial and wealth inequality and ethnic bigotry.
The tale, she said, focuses on a young woman, Lauren Oya Olamina, who has an otherworldly “ability to feel pain and other sensations she witnesses.” As a teenager, she grows up in a seemingly protected affluent “walled” community near Los Angeles, which has its own privatized police and fire services. But when security is breached, Lauren’s home is destroyed and her family is murdered. With other community survivors, she begins a trek to Northern California, where she starts Earthseed and comes to believe humankind must expand their world to live on other planets.
“Yes, there’s time travel and aliens (in Butler’s works), but ultimately these are human stories,” in which it is discovered that “God is change ... and change is the only lasting truth,” Reagon said.
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