Sci-fi music theater about the future of humanity

Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower

Toshi Reagon, Bernice Johnson Reagon

The composers and musicians Toshi Reagon (USA) and Bernice Johnson Reagon (USA)’s Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower is a post-apocalyptic piece that draws on two hundred years of Black music. The opera is based on Octavia Butler’s science fiction novels in which a young woman leaves a gated community in the suburbs of a future Los Angeles, racked by escalating violence caused by rampant corporate takeover of public resources, poverty and climate change. As she travels through a parched American landscape, she seeds the beginning of a new faith. Blending elements of science fiction and African American spiritualism, Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower transcends genres in this contemporary music theatre piece about race, gender and the future of humanity.

background information

Toshi Reagon (1964) and Bernice Johnson Reagon (1942) make their Holland Festival debut with Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower. This post-apocalyptic opera is based on two influential sci-fi novels

by the award-winning American author Octavia E. Butler (1947-2006), and blends science fiction with African-American spiritualism to explore themes of gender, race and the future of human civilization. The show offers a highly topical social commentary on the America of today. 

The novels (Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents) were written in the nineteen nineties, but have proved to be strikingly prophetic. The story begins in the year 2024, in a time of great turmoil that is all too easy to visualize from where we stand today. Air and water are increasingly polluted. Droughts plague the West Coast; the gap between the haves and have-nots has widened to the breaking point; and violence and unrest spread like wildfire. Young Lauren Olamina, focus of The Parable of the Sower, exists in a self-made gated community outside of Los Angeles, walled in with a small group of neighbors—yet the outside world continues to press closer, with greater danger every day. When the enclave is attacked, Lauren’s only choice is to grab a few belongings and flee, headed north to an unknown future. Thousands throng the roads; they must be constantly on guard. Lauren travels with two fellow survivors from her neighborhood and along the way they pick up a few other travelers who join with them for safety. As they head north Lauren develops a belief system that she names Earthseed, and shares the truths she has come to discover about God as Change, one of the faith’s basic tenets. As the group reaches a safe haven to form the first Earthseed community, they prepare and look forward to the day when humanity will escape to the stars. 

Butler's work has had a huge influence on African-American culture, thanks in part to the novels’ powerful, black female protagonist. Toshi Reagon devoured her novels as a teenager, and she and her mother decided just over a decade ago to bring their imagination to bear on Butler's modern classic. The result is a theatrical song cycle, rooted in two hundred years of Black-American music and incorporating soul, funk, punk, the blues, folk and even a dash of electronic dance music. The show features Toshi Reagon (vocals/guitar) leading a five-person ensemble, and a cast of fourteen. 

The Reagons have a long history as socially engaged musicians. In the 1960s, Bernice Johnson Reagon was a founding member of the protest group known as the Freedom Singers. She was closely involved with the civil rights movement, and was the founder and Artistic Director of the a capella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock for 30 years, providing musical expression of the concerns of the civil rights movement and African-American history and raising political consciousness among its audiences. For her part, Toshi Reagon’s versatility as a musician, producer, and composer for performance and film showed itself from an early age. She has performed all over the world with her band BIGLovely, and most recently with The Blues Project with Michelle Dorrance. She is a vocal advocate of human rights in an increasingly polarized America, and was the Musical Director of the Inaugural Women’s March in Washington DC in 2016. Parable of the Sower is the mother-daughter duo’s third opera together. The previous two were The Temptation of St. Anthony (2003) and Zinnias: The Life of Clementine Hunter (2013), both directed by Robert Wilson. 

The show’s title refers to a parable of the same name in the New Testament (Matthew 13:1-9), in which Jesus, talking to his disciples, uses the sowing of seeds as a metaphor for spreading the gospel — the message will only take root and grow bountifully where the soil is fertile. Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower premiered at The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi in November 2017, and will have its first performance in the Netherlands at the Holland Festival.

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biographies

The musical polymath Toshi Reagon (1964) is a singer, guitarist, composer, musical director, librettist, curator and producer, and founder of the band BIGLovely. Her musical universe has  

encompassed a variety of genres since the very beginning of her career as an artist, and includes folk, funk, the blues and rock. Reagon began performing on the folk festival circuit at the age of seventeen, and was invited to join Lenny Kravitz on his very first world tour in 1990. She released her debut album, Justice, the same year. Since then she has performed everywhere from the Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden to the Paris Opera House, and worked with a raft of influential musicians such as Ani DiFranco, Elvis Costello, Carl Hancock Rux and Meshell Ndegeocello.

Reagon is the recipient of an NYFA Award for Music Composition, has composed music for two Peabody Award-winning films, and received The Black Lily Music and Film Festival Award for Outstanding Performance. She was made an honouree of the National Women's History Month in 2007 for her work and activism, received OutMusic’s Heritage Award in 2010, and was named an Art of Change Fellow by the Ford Foundation in 2015. That same year, The Blues Project, a dance performance with Dorrance Dance for which she provided music, won a Bessie Award. Social activism runs through Reagon’s veins. Her parents are Bernice Johnson Reagon and Cordell Hull Reagon, both prominent figures in the American civil rights movement, and the young Reagon grew up with an understanding of music’s capacity for uniting and mobilizing people. Reagon’s previous collaborations with her mother include music and the libretto for The Temptation of St. Anthony (2003) and Zinnias: The Life of Clementine Hunter (2013), an opera based on a novel by Jacqueline Woodson and directed by Robert Wilson. 

The scholar, singer/songwriter and activist Dr Bernice Johnson Reagon (1942) has played a major role in American and African-American culture for more than half a century. Reagon was born and raised in Southwest Georgia, where she received her grounding in traditional gospel repertoire. In the 1960s, she and her husband, Cordell Hull Reagon, co-founded the Freedom Singers, a musical group within the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) of the American civil rights movement, and began using music as a medium for social and political activism. She led an all-female a capella ensemble, The Harambee Singers, during the same period, known as the Black Arts and Black Power movements (1965-1975).

From 1973 until her retirement in 2004, she led yet another influential female a capella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock. In addition, she provided music for a variety of film, television, video art and theatre productions, including the award-winning documentary Eyes on the Prize (1987-1990) and the feature film Beloved (1999). She also wrote the music and libretto for two operas by director Robert Wilson: The Temptation of St. Anthony (2003) and Zinnias: The Life of Clementine Hunter (2013). Reagon is one of the leading authorities in African American Cultural History. She is the professor emeritus of history at the American University, curator emeritus at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and served as the Cosby Chair of Fine Arts at Spelman College from 2002 to 2004. She has received a Heinz Award for the Arts and Humanities (2003), a MacArthur Fellowship (1989), the Leeway National Award for Women in the Arts (2000), the Presidential Medal (2005), and the Charles E. Frankel Prize for contributions to the public understanding of the humanities.

Octavia Estelle Butler (1947-2006) was a renowned African American author, recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Grant and a PEN Lifetime Achievement Award for her body of work. Born in Pasadena in 1947, she was raised by her mother (a housemaid) and her grandmother.  The author of many award-winning novels, including PARABLE OF THE SOWER (1993), a New York Times Notable Book of the Year,  and PARABLE OF THE TALENTS (1995) winner of the Nebula Award for the best science fiction novel published that year, she was way ahead of her time: though the MacArthur Grant made life easier in later years, she struggled for decades when her dystopian novels exploring themes of Black injustice, global warming, women’s rights and political disparity were, to say the least, not in commercial demand. During these years of obscurity Butler, always an early riser, woke at 2 a.m. every day to write, and then went to work as a telemarketer, potato chip inspector, and dishwasher, among other things. At the time of her death in 2006, interest in her books was beginning to rise, and in recent years, her work has become timely and hugely popular among all kinds of readers.  Sales overall have increased worldwide, her work is taught in over 200 colleges and universities nationwide; and a graphic novel adaptation of her book KINDRED was a #1 New York Times Bestseller in 2017. In media, her novel DAWN is being developed for television by Ava DuVernay (Selma, A Wrinkle In Time) and other works are also in production.

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Credits

based on
Parable of the Sower & Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler
creation, music, lyrics
Toshi Reagon, Bernice Johnson Reagon
direction
Eric Ting
musical direction
Toshi Reagon
choreography
Millicent Johnnie
scenic
Arnulfo Maldonado
costume
Dede M. Ayite
light
Christopher Kuhl
art installation
Abigail Deville
audio systems
John Kemp
production
Wise Reagon Arts LLC, Meiyin Wang
consultant
Shanta Thake
co-commissioned by
The Public Theater and The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi
lead funding
New England Foundation for the Arts’ National Theater Project and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
production stage management
Chris De Camillis
additional support
California Shakespeare Theater

This performance was made possible with support by