In 1993, Octavia Butler imagined the year 2024: there would be intense, apocalyptic climate change leading to the exploitation of workers, a massive refugee crisis, and major violent class disparities. A demagogue would rise to power touting “Christian values” and the slogan “Make America Great Again.” Civil society would erode in the chaos and violence on the streets of major American cities. In 2022, Butler’s vision is eerily, terrifying and prophetic. In light of this, “Parable of the Sower”, a reimagining of Butler’s masterpiece as a gospel opera, written by Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon and performed at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, sent a timely message. of resistance and faith against a backdrop of a not-so-distant apocalypse.
One of the main storylines of the series revolves around “Earthseed”, a religion invented by main character Lauren Olamina (Marie Tatti) after realizing that her father’s god, Reverend Olamina (Jared Wayne Gladly), does not was not enough to complete it. the end of the world as she knows it. Appropriately, the powerful proclamations of “Earthseed”, “Whatever you touch, you change. Everything you change, changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is Change,” were performed in a dynamic gospel musical style in the stage adaptation. The entire opera drew heavily on traditionally black musical genres, including blues, jazz, and folk music, bringing to life a rich story populated by complex black characters.
While the music and lyrics by Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon deftly reimagined Butler’s story, it was the actors’ passionate portrayals of the characters and their superb musical talent that made the opera so immersive and moving. Marie Tatti played an energetic but still youthful Lauren, and her soaring voice managed to convey prayer, angst, passion, and confusion in turn. Josette Newsam, playing both Mrs. Sims and The Ancestor, filled the space with her clear, breathtaking voice. And especially for a show with little dialogue, Tatti and the rest of the cast effectively used body language and space to portray Lauren’s unusual condition – she had “hyperempathy”, a syndrome which causes victims literally feel the pain of others – and the larger dynamics of a community on the verge of collapse.
The scenography, too, skilfully completed the story. A thin gauze curtain hangs over the stage, evoking the wall surrounding Lauren’s island community and its fragility. Metaphorically, the wall represented the little that really separates those on the inside (the haves) from those on the outside (the have-nots). Desperate strangers tear down the wall midway through the show, fittingly signifying a major turning point: the erosion of artificial class barriers, orderly society, and Lauren’s safety.
“When the world is on fire, what are you going to do? asked one of the first musical numbers. The show, in keeping with the purpose of the book, was intensely political and aware of the present moment. Toshi Reagon – co-creator, co-composer, co-librettist and musical director – sat center stage on a raised platform for the duration of the performance, contributing vocals and guitar, and intervening occasionally to pay special tribute to Butler. original text and to place “Parable of the Sower” in the context of 2022. The presence of the creator on stage, flanked by “The Talents” – two figures of Reagon’s own creation fashioned in the image of African goddesses – was a powerful proprietary statement about Butler’s history and his critique of American society. The show stared unflinchingly at the modern lookalike of Butler’s imagined future and asked, what are we going to do?
With a duration of two hours without intermission and an incessant work of breathtaking music, the show could have proved overwhelming for the uninitiated spectator. For those unfamiliar with Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower,” the plot and characters of this lyrical adaptation might have seemed opaque and confusing. Only a handful of on-stage characters have been explicitly named, and almost everyone in the cast plays two characters. Additionally, some of Lauren Olamina’s early inner thoughts that complicate her personality were missing from the stage performance, as was her unsettling relationship with Taylor Bankole (Toussaint Jeanlouis), which defines the second half of the novel. The opera, to put it simply, was not a simple adaptation but a complex artistic reinvention and should have been treated as such. Audiences needed to read the novel beforehand to fully appreciate the care and genius the creators imbued into this performance.
Octavia Butler’s novel is an awe-inspiring and prophetic work of art that has only become more prescient in the decades since its publication. The reimagining of his work as a gospel-inspired opera is simply inspired. The show breathes fresh air into the opera genre while examining the intersections of race, gender, class, capitalism, climate change and religion in a way that feels lucid and insightful. urgent importance.