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BWW Review: THE PARABLE OF THE SOWER at Strathmore & Woolly Mammoth

Through April 29th.

BWW Review: THE PARABLE OF THE SOWER at Strathmore & Woolly Mammoth
The cast of The Parable of the Sower

Imagine, if you will, a futuristic society in which climate change has ravaged our planet, corporate greed has absorbed nearly every resource and job, and income inequality has widened so sharply that homeless and mutilated people live on the streets while others huddle inside gated communities with limited means and still others flourish. A world where widespread diseases and corruption has destroyed entire populations and nations, where labor protections are stripped, where police and firefighters are unreliable help for the public. It sounds completely farfetched and distant from our lives now, doesn't it?

It's almost eerie how well author Octavia Butler saw the future back when she penned Parable of the Sower in 1993. The world she pictured in her futuristic take of 2024 isn't that far off from our reality in 2022, which makes revisiting her work today particularly poignant.

The Parable of the Sower opens in a walled community, called Robledo, just outside Los Angeles. The community is led and held together by Reverend Olamina, though there is still plenty of poverty and infighting to go around. While the Reverend preaches patience and faith, his daughter, Lauren, takes a different approach: she believes that God is not unchanging and steadfast, but change itself. The only certainty, she argues, is change, and thus it's important for the faithful to adapt and to be open to it. In 2024, when the walls are breached and their community is destroyed, Lauren, dressed as a man, starts a journey with two other survivors from her community, Harry Balter and Zahra Moss. The trio brave the increasingly violent and volatile world outside the gates, preaching Lauren's teachings of love and friendship (a religion she names Earthseed) and picking up other travelers to build their own community and safety.

Brought to life as an opera-in-progress developed by folk/blues/rock singer and songwriter Toshi Reagon and her mother, singer and songwriter Bernice Johnson Reagon, The Parable of the Sower: The Concert Version was staged at The Public Theater in New York in 2015 and again in 2018, and makes its DC debut in 2022 through a collaboration between Strathmore and Woolly Mammoth.

BWW Review: THE PARABLE OF THE SOWER at Strathmore & Woolly Mammoth
Librettist and Singer-Songwriter Toshi Reagon in The Parable of the Sower

The concert version of the tale is an abridged take on Butler's novel - the production slightly alters the fates of Lauren's brother and father, and the timeline for the attack on their community. Unfortunately, it also loses the plot a bit midway through Part 2 (which, incidentally, is Act 2 in all except name, since there's no intermission, but the setting changes, actors change roles, and there's a time-jump), though it thankfully makes its way back to a powerful ending. Still, the show is keenly aware of how relevant its story is, now more than ever in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and increasingly alarming reports about climate change. Reagon & Reagon weave a libretto that draws on folk music, blues, rock and roll, and African-American spirituals, and the end result is - despite my critiques - a bit magical. The production itself is fairly minimalistic - performers and musicians are mostly set in a semi-circle on the stage with only a few props and pieces of art hung in the background - but it still manages to be a completely immersive experience.

The powerful songs are only one factor in this production's success. The cast is, without exception, phenomenally talented, and the libretto gives each of them a chance to show off their incredible vocals. Even among the immense talent displayed, though, it's hard not to be blown away by a few cast members in particular. As Reverend Olamina, Jared Wayne Gladly's deep voice lends to his character's authority and passion, and his duet with Karma Mayet Johnson, as his wife, Cory, is heartbreakingly beautiful. Tracy Dunn, as a community member at odds with many she sees as sinful (and later as the traveler Jillian Gilchrist), has a powerful belt and the emotionality to match it. Josette Newsam, as Mrs. Sims/The Ancestors, commanded attention and awe. And there truly aren't enough adjectives to describe how stunningly amazing Marie Tatti Aqeel's performance was as Lauren (Aqeel received applause and whoops mid-song for some of her high and power notes). Supporting the cast were Helga Davis, Shelley Nicole, and Toshi Reagon herself. Davis and Nicole served as narrators as well as filled in news reports and other intervals, often helping set the scene before providing the vocals backing it. Reagon served as the main narrator, breaking the fourth wall and even inviting the audience to join in on a few of her own songs, making the whole production - even in a space as large as Strathmore - feel intimate.

BWW Review: THE PARABLE OF THE SOWER at Strathmore & Woolly Mammoth
The cast of The Parable of the Sower

On the technical side, the production was also fairly strong (a few issues with microphone feedback aside). Co-Directors Eric Ting & Signe V. Harriday deliver a mostly robust production, though the cast did seem to meander a bit during that dragging section in the second half. Christopher Kuhl's lighting was particularly standout, helping set the mood and move along the story in an unobtrusive but captivating manner. Abigail DeVille's artwork is quite beautiful, and the lighting tricks utilized to highlight it were also very effective in setting the tone for the second half of the show. Although it was limited due to the nature of the performance, I was also impressed by Millicent Johnnie's choreography - it was simple, but effective, and elevated the performance further. Rounding out the production was the orchestra, which was placed on stage just behind Davis, Nicole, and Reagon - cellist Zach Brown was unfortunately absent the night I attended, but the remaining members managed to fill in that space beautifully all the same.

The Parable of the Sower might be a bit too religious or on-the-nose for some viewers, but, overall, it's a beautifully produced performance that showcases phenomenal talents while drawing necessary attention to the direction our world is heading if we don't take the steps to intervene. It may be a more urgent warning than when Butler first issued it in 1993, but the hope that carries through the years hasn't faded either.

Strathmore and Woolly Mammoth's The Parable of the Sower plays at the Strathmore April 28th and 29th. Performance run time is approximately two hours, with no intermission. Tickets and additional information can be found on the Strathmore website.

Photos courtesy of Reed Hutchinson.

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