All that you touch
All that you Change
The only lasting truth is
Octavia E. Butler’s words from 1993 still ring loud and true today. After major, life-changing events in the past two years: a global pandemic, war in Eastern Europe, devastating climate change and widening economic disparities, it is overwhelmingly apparent that the only lasting truth is Change. Butler researched “Parable of the Sower” throughout the 1980s, releasing the novel in 1993. She warns of a future (the year 2024) in which the world is on fire, public resources are becoming privatized and fascist politicians reign. Sound familiar?
The world ignored Butler’s warnings in 1993. Now we are two years away from the future she predicted, and her prophesies are coming to fruition — little is being done to change the course of our future. However, Creators Toshi Reagon and her mom Bernice Johnson Reagon created a powerful effort to amplify Butler’s message through drama and song in their operatic adaptation of “Parable of the Sower.” After nearly two decades in development, the opera first performed in 2017 but was put on pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. The opera’s performance in the Power Center for Performing Arts on Friday, March 25 marked its return to the stage after two years of uncertainty and anticipation. The performance on Friday was followed by a conversation with Toshi Reagon, hosted by Dr. Toni Pressley-Sanon from Eastern Michigan University.
Expectations did not meet reality in the case of the “Parable” opera — in the best way possible. Opera is generally assumed to be fine art for the highbrow, with extravagant costumes, gold studded sets, piercing vibratos and full orchestras. Reagon refused to maintain these classist barriers, transforming the elitist opera into accessible entertainment while retaining its integrity as a piece of high, fine art. With a minimal set and casual costumes, there are no distractions from the music which carries the purpose of the narrative.
Throughout the opera, a modern orchestra — cello, violin, bass, piano, guitar and drums played by five musicians — sits on stage. At the beginning of the performance, Toshi Reagon and her acoustic guitar take center stage, flanked by two Talents (Helga Davis and Shelley Nicole), where they remain throughout the evening. Reagon opens with a powerful message to the audience, emphasizing a continued lack of action in the face of societal degradation, in the face of rapid global change. “We are here to sing a story about how Octavia (Butler) made a child see God as Change, the only lasting truth,” Reagon proclaimed before taking a seat and strumming the first notes of the narrative.
The opera that followed was a breathless portrayal of our modern dystopia. The protagonist, Lauren Olamina (played by Marie Tatti Aqeel), is born into a walled community outside of Los Angeles, locked away from the fiery violence the world has descended into. It becomes clear that Lauren is at odds with the stagnancy of her community, their determination to stick to old customs and religion while the world beyond their wall changes rapidly. While this may not be a loving and agreeable community, they recognize the importance of cooperation and community in their quest for survival. When this community is destroyed, Lauren has the opportunity to create a new community, governed by the principles of Change.
Community is an important theme throughout the story, not just on the stage between the characters, but between the audience and the narrative as well. The first act is dedicated to building community and bringing us all together in one room. The house lights were not dimmed immediately, and the actors would frequently step into the audience, using the aisles as an extension of their stage. Throughout the opera, the audience was encouraged to sing or clap along. We were not just passively watching a performance, we were actively engaging in a community. In conversation after the play, Reagon said, “The story is so complicated, but no more than our everyday lives. I want to say something about how basic it is to work together, with people.” That’s the essence of “Parable of the Sower”: The only way out of hard times is to work together.
Translating these important lessons from Butler’s novel onto a stage and sharing them through song allows the message to hit harder, deeper, louder. With lights, music and bodies, Reagon tells a compelling narrative of change. The opera incorporates the sounds of spirituals, Motown and Zeppelin, pulling inspiration from decades of musical history as a means of characterization, as well as a symbol of the timelessness of the issues represented in the story.
The music was also an essential tool in evoking emotion; the fear, despair and outrage sung onstage echoes the same fear, despair and outrage currently felt around the world. The narrative reflects the reality we face and exposes the urgency we should be feeling. After the opera, Reagon encouraged the audience to “express outrage at the smallest thing that is not right” and to “let your outrage be your superpower, coupled with joy and community.”
In 2022, we can no longer afford to be passive. The world ignored Octavia Butler’s warning when this novel was published in 1993, and we are now living in the dystopia she predicted. Reagon’s opera is a strong reminder that we can not ignore Butler’s message any longer. We cannot continue to fight community or fight change. As Lauren Olamina teaches, we must work together, we must seize change, adapt and grow.
Daily Arts Writer Maya Levy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.