‘Parable Path Boston’: A pandemic-era artist residency tackles societal fault lines
In 2017, the stirring chords of Toshi Reagon’s opera adaptation of Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” filled the halls of ArtsEmerson’s Paramount Center. Three years later, Reagon has returned to build her yearlong artist residency with ArtsEmerson around the tenets of Butler’s novel. Reagon’s vision for the residency, titled “Parable Path Boston,” included in-person community events, conversations and performances for creative “groupthinks” on Parable’s themes. Now, she’s adapting these programs to the new online art space of COVID-19.
The pandemic may have disrupted the residency’s logistical workflow, but it has also served to magnify the issues at play in Butler’s novel and Reagon’s corresponding opera. The 1993 sci-fi novel looks forward to 2024 and presents a societal timeline alarmingly similar to the current circumstances of the United States. Many of the issues in the novel, including resource scarcity, poverty, racism and societal violence, are at play at this very moment.
“This pandemic shows us our togetherness in a way that nothing else has,” says Reagon. “And I hope for us to embrace that knowledge and to let some of our more superficial structures fall down the way they seem to be wanting to. And not try to see if we can keep racism up or see if we can uphold lying and cheating politicians.”
Reagon gives the example of teachers. With parents now at home teaching their own children, they’re developing a better understanding of the hard work teachers do and how problematic their low pay and lack of resources really is. Similarly, food scarcity, which is a problem for many populations on a regular basis (and is a major plot point of “Parable”), has been magnified with long lines at the food bank.
In some ways these magnifications have guided Reagon’s plans for upcoming events. “Some of them are answering to emergency situations,” she says, explaining that food justice funding is being reallocated to address the immediate needs brought on by COVID-19.
Though the residency process looks a little different, with ideas shared via phone call and Zoom conference rather than in in-person brainstorming sessions, the goal of bringing the community together around these issues persists. Reagon says that in the next few weeks she’ll be finalizing initiatives and events big and small to launch with ArtsEmerson during the year.
“It’s been a good time for us to be explorative and to try to come up with the art, the language, the teaching possibilities to shift our behavior so we’re not constantly on a path of destruction with the earth,” says Reagon. “Just because we know where we were before doesn’t mean we should go back there.”