A Prescient Sci-Fi ‘Parable’ Is Set to Music
Posted January 1, 2018 6:46 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — When the plot of a dystopian novel and the daily churn of the news cycle start overlapping, admiration for a given author’s prescience may make way for alarm.
Take Octavia E. Butler’s 1993 “Parable of the Sower.” Set in the 2020s, it describes an America where climate change is a menace, conflicts erupt over scarce water supplies, private armies protect corporate interests and the well-to-do wall themselves off in gated communities from the chaos surrounding them. A charismatic politician even promises to “make America great again.”
“It’s not that Octavia predicted him,” musician Toshi Reagon says of a current-day politician who, you may have heard, rode the same slogan to the White House. “It’s that she knew us so well and knew we would allow it to happen. That’s chilling. It gives me bumps on my arms.”
Reagon, whose musical adaptation of the novel is the centerpiece of the Public Theater’s Under the Radar festival, is the granddaughter of a Baptist minister. Her parents became musical luminaries of the civil rights era and beyond: the late Cordell Hull Reagon founded the Freedom Singers, while Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon performed with that group as well as with another a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock.
Their 53-year-old daughter has an aesthetic that lives at the intersection of genres. With the dancer Michelle Dorrance, she created “The Blues Project,” writing music to accompany an exploration of relationships among dance styles, from tap to the Lindy Hop. She collaborated with her mother and Robert Wilson on two original operas.
Her adaptation of “Parable of the Sower” is deeply rooted in the African-American sacred music that might be called her family inheritance. But it also incorporates soul, funk, the blues and even a whiff of EDM — “a couple hundred years’ of music that comes out of our country,” Toshi Reagon said.
The director, Eric Ting, described the piece, which will be performed at the Public’s Newman Theater from Jan. 8 to 15, as “a cross between a folk opera and a rock concert.” The festival bills it simply as an opera.
Reagon began working on the show about 10 years ago, collaborating with her mother, but Johnson Reagon has since retired from writing and performing.
Mark Russell, director of Under the Radar, described it as “the heartbeat of the festival.” The organization has dedicated significant time and money to the project during a workshop period that included a concert performance at the festival two years ago. The song cycle, which is almost entirely sung-through, has a cast of 14 plus a five-piece band, in addition to Reagon, who sings and plays acoustic guitar. (The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi, where the show had its world premiere in November, is among the commissioning organizations.)
Toshi Reagon said it was a challenge to sort out which elements from Butler’s dense novel could be musicalized.
In one case, she turned back to an older song by her mother to dramatize a debate between a character and her minister father. “There’s A New World Coming” originally alluded to colonialism and the war in Vietnam. Here, it addresses the hostile dangers of the world Butler created.
The hero of “Parable of the Sower” is Lauren Oya Olamina, an African-American teenager who is displaced from her California home and creates a new religion while building a community among fellow refugees.
As a black woman, Butler, who died in 2006 as a much-decorated hero of the science fiction world, performed a radical act in simply claiming her own ground in a space where people who looked like her had long seemed invisible. (The cultural critic Mark Dery coined the term Afrofuturism, the year “Parable of the Sower” was published, in part as a response to Butler’s work.)
“When I began writing science fiction, when I began reading, heck, I wasn’t in any of this stuff,” she told The New York Times in 2000. “I wrote myself in, since I’m me and I’m here and I’m writing.”
As a youth, Reagon would stay up late at night to devour Butler’s books, she said.
“I don’t know many black women who haven’t read it,” she said of the subject of her adaptation. “What’s really incredible is that black people insist on being in the future. Women insist on being in the future.” And if that future starts looking more and more like a dystopian vision?
“Some people are in complete denial,” she said, “and some people are petrified. So I get to say: If you’re sensing something is off in a way you never have before, you’re right. Something is off. It is urgent.”