Toshi Reagon’s operatic novel adaptation hits stage
Through March 26, ArtsEmerson presents a powerful musical rendition of Octavia E. Butler’s science fiction novel, “Parable of the Sower.” Written by Toshi Reagon and her mother, singer, scholar and activist Bernice Johnson Reagon, the performance explores race, gender and humanity through 200 years of black music.
Butler’s novel, “Parable of the Sower,” tells the story of 15-year-old Lauren Olamina, who lives in a dystopian California where societal structure has collapsed in favor of money and xenophobia. Resources are scarce, poverty abounds and religious and ethnic minorities are attacked. In the current political climate, Olamina’s world doesn’t seem so far away.
In the production, Reagon articulates the Afrofuturist plot through centuries of black music, from the drumbeats and chants of slave songs to the bluesy riffs of Miles Davis. The Reagon family is exceptionally suited for this task. Toshi is the daughter of Bernice Johnson Reagon and Cordell Reagon, founders of the civil rights-era, five-piece Freedom Singers. The group crafted campaign songs influenced by gospel music, traditional spirituals, rhythm and blues and soul. Toshi fronted her own band, BIGLovely, and has worked with Lenny Kravitz, Ani DiFranco and Elvis Costello.
“‘Parable of the Sower’ looks at a wide-ranging and diverse community, looks at the power of young thinkers, looks at the deconstruction of old models of society in order to create something else,” says Toshi Reagon in an interview with ArtsEmerson. Similarly, the show deconstructs traditional performance arrangements to create a new, operatic telling of the material. The mother-daughter duo has been crafting the production for over ten years. Some music was created based on the text, and some was brought in from the African American tradition to support the story.
It’s no coincidence that “Parable of the Sower” is on Arts-Emerson’s 2017 docket. “I can’t think of a better way to bring people together, to open up dialogue, to support activism, than a strong piece of theatre,” says Toshi Reagon. Forging community is the mantra of Boston arts organizations this year. This collaboration extended through the production and into the marketing of it. ArtsEmerson put out a call for artists to design posters for the production that would be displayed in the marquee and lobby of the theatre. This feature localized the production and highlighted the work of Boston-based artists.
Director Eric Ting says, “Toshi’s music is a profound act of forging community. I can’t think of a better artist to tell this story in this moment.”