This past Saturday, I and some friends saw the Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, a new opera developed by Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon from Butler’s masterwork written in 1993 and set in 2024. This musical adaption utilizes the styles of folk, blues, and gospel to tell the story of Lauren Oya Olamina, a young prophet of a post-apocalyptic America. A true parable, this musical provides a sketch of an incredibly rich story created by Butler. Through beautifully layered choral performances and compelling narration, Reagon and the performers offer us the greatest lessons of Earthseed, Lauren’s religion created around the ethos that “God is Change” and that people have a responsibility to shape God, to adapt and learn from the Earth and become its collaborator.
She comes of age in a community walled off from the outside world. Her father is a professor and Baptist minister and he along with the other able-bodied adults of the community enforce their security from the outside world. Lauren knows that this can’t last forever and at first her ideas are met with fierce disapproval from those around her. Soon enough, she is proved right in the worst of ways when her community is razed to the ground and she is forced to flee along with a couple of her peers. A lot of the strength of this musical is not so much what happens, but how it’s shown through music, color, and lighting. In one of the show’s greatest moments of pathos, the entire theater goes dark except for single light on Marie Tattiana Aqeel’s face while she, performing as Lauren, beseechingly sings to the crowd “Has anybody seen my father?” During moments of tension, a triptych showing explosive and swirling textures of paint is lighted in various colors.
Unlike dystopian works of more recent acclaim like the Hunger Games or the Giver, the world Octavia Butler has created is remarkably familiar but no less terrifying. A lot of the inventions of her future setting have parallels or precedents in reality. (Such as addictive sensory VR technology or new prescription drugs with performance enhancing side effects). As some who has read the source material, I was aware of a lot of the worldbuilding that was left on the cutting room floor. A lot of these details are left out of the musical, but there is one number included which deviates from the main plot line to warn us, the audience, of Olivar. This is Toshi, our narrator’s, solo. Toshi tells us about the “company town” of Olivar, in which people become indentured servants in exchange for housing and stable employment but are really no better than slaves. (This hitting home for anybody?) Toshi interrupts Lauren’s story to remind the world not to sell our freedom for security. Toshi explains the role of the folk singer, to be critical of corruption in society and government, even if it means foregoing conventional life and societal expectations. Toshi, like Lauren, remind us of the consequences of our apathy and complacency.
I think Butler’s masterworks should be on the must read list of anyone serious about surviving a changing world or just looking for an incredible and unique piece of literature. Likewise, this musical performance is an emerging landmark work in a new school of Afrofuturist thought. Music lovers will not be disappointed by Reagon’s opera. The powerful voices of the performers brought many to tears and at various points the audience clapped or sang along. This is a work of “pleasure activism”, something to be enjoyed while shifting the consciousness and asking important questions about our unsustainable economic system. I have no doubt that we will be seeing and hearing more of Earthseed in the years to come.