Toshi Reagon, Bernice Johnson Reagon and director Eric Ting brought Toshi Reagon’s work-in-progress opera, Parable of the Sower, to the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance Friday night.
Reagon’s opera looks into the future as it looks into the past. Adapted from Octavia E. Butler‘s eponymous novel, Parable of the Sower prophesizes an anarchic vision of America sunken into entropy. It follows 15-year-old Lauren Olamina, played by Shayna Small, who leaves the walled Baptist community maintained by her father and creates her own community and religion, Earthseed. Butler’s novel depicts a black girl’s struggle with faith in a society fallen to shambles economically, environmentally and socially.
The opera is divided into two sections, the first taking place in the walled community of Robledo, a Los Angeles suburb, and the second on the road north. In the first part, the violin echoes ominously in the upper register as the choir comes in to introduce the main character, Lauren. In an aria, she confesses her hopes for the future: “I had my dream again / No matter how we get there we should live among the stars …” Small looks out towards the audience as she continues to sing, “I look around at these burned out eyes,” bringing us into her story. Reagon’s music is universalizing, making heavy use of the vocal harmony to create a sense of unity.
Briefly familiarizing us with Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Reagon explained, “everybody’s like, she’s [Octavia Butler’s] such a prophet, she predicted Donald Trump … She didn’t predict Donald Trump, she predicted human condition.”
Indeed, it’s hard, if not impossible, to listen to Parable of the Sower without seeing echoes of our present times within the story. Reagon’s opera underscores its historical omniscience with a very panoptic survey of music as well. Parable of the Sower contains elements of gospel, blues, soul, funk, country, folk, spirituals, electronica and R&B, genres originated or heavily influenced by black Americans. In Small’s aria, she sings, “darkness brightening / stars” a reference to songs of the Underground Railroad that would secretly contain instructions to escaping to the North by following groups of stars. Through these references, Reagon implies that the issues we face today are not new, but have been experienced before and repeated.
To conclude, Parable of the Sower returns to its namesake, a parable from the Synoptic Gospels.
Acappella, the vocalists begin in harmonic unison before breaking out into a contrapuntal texture, and then culminating in a powerful harmony, “from it the plants did grow / from it the flowers bloomed / and in due time came forth buried fruit / a hundred fold!” Originally an allegory of Christian salvation, Reagon recontextualizes the gospels to present the themes of struggle and survival, and thus closed the opera with the hopeful picture of human resiliency.