BWW Interview: Composer/ Librettist Toshi Reagon on THE PARABLE OF THE SOWER at ArtsEmerson
Toshi Reagon didn't go to college herself, but when her mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon, was tapped by Toni Morrison (yes, that Toni Morrison) to teach a creative course at Princeton, Bernice explained that she would accept the position if her daughter could teach collaboratively alongside her. Reagon's more formally-educated friends couldn't imagine seeing Toshi in front of a Princeton seminar, but the work of this class, surrounding Octavia E Butler's 1993 science fiction novel The Parable of the Sower, launched what would become a major undertaking in Reagon's career. Her opera of the same name, which she co-produced, co-wrote (with her mother), and music directed, has been undergoing rewrites, workshops, and concert performances for years. Unfortunately, the upcoming fully-staged version of the show through ArtsEmerson has been cancelled, but on Friday, May 22, they are hosting a virtual event which will include panel discussions with Reagon along with a streaming of a recorded concert version of the show which was filmed on NYU's campus in Abu Dhabi in 2015.
In Reagon's words, the show is "a ritual of music that connects a community of people trying to survive their dangers. Some new people surface on our journeys and others do not survive until the end, but (the show explores) how we move forward without the people we started out on this path with." She explains how Butler's apocalyptic novel lends itself to the theatre because it feels incredibly "cinematic" while still being "real", and how it exists as an appropriate vehicle for over 200 years of musical styles from spirituals, to contemporary tunes, to anthems of the civil rights era. "These characters are saying, 'we knew things were shifting, but we just let it happen.' We are in the same place. We get confused about what is important and what we need to focus on." These themes, she feels, connect themselves to a breadth of music referencing a major chunk of modern history.
"She really knew people. How easy it is to destroy our own communities," Reagon says of Butler. Interestingly enough, Butler's novel takes place in the year 2024 and seems to make some erudite predictions of where our world is heading. Because of this, Reagon explained, she holds The Parable of the Sower as "a Bible of revolution."
"If (Butler) was alive today, she'd ask us to stop bombarding her. People would be treating her like a prophet, but she wouldn't have to say anything new. It's really all there in the book. At a certain point, a government will give society permission to unhinge itself, and when that happens, the condition we are in is how we will be. So we have to prioritize and look at what our communities will have left when money and status don't mean anything. A pandemic can be a time for repair, you know. You don't have to listen to the state telling you to spread more death. We can build more logical systems if we look for our own senses of compassion. At the end of the day, our systems need to center around our relationship to the planet and to each other, not our relationship with government. Change is inevitable, so how are we going to respond? That is the book."
Reagon spoke about how the themes from Butler's work came to light in the process of creating and producing this opera. Lauren Oya Olamina, the novel's protagonist, is upheld because she has the skill required to walk along her path. In bringing this work around the globe, Reagon has felt blessed by the "genius" collaborators who have shaped the piece in ways reflective of their communities. "Like Lauren on her path," she explains, "we try to invite the specific communities we are in to lay their hands on us and make their mark." Sometimes, this looks like opening up discussions about what elements of Butler's story speak most urgently to community members and figuring out ways to highlight them. For instance, Boston collaborators have drawn parallels between Butler's warnings and the onslaught of expensive condos popping up around our city. Other times, Reagon has felt the need to ask presenters to be innovative. "I'm not a theatre producer, but I need tickets for this piece going to people representative of the community we are in. We're not looking to charge Hamilton ticket prices, but it's more than that. If theaters want to produce this, I need them to open their doors to their community and let people know that this can be their space. I don't want anyone feeling like an outside guest."
Because of this, Parable of the Sower has already had success and garnered interest from major educational and theatrical institutions. In Reagon's words; "It's in these mainstream halls now, and I'm glad and thankful for that, but we want to keep taking (this show) to the places where it needs to be."
Check out ArtsEmerson's livestream here.
Photo credit: Kevin Yatorola