Toshi Reagon’s Futuristic New Opera Is Eerily Timely

The queer singer has adapted Octavia Butler's "Parable of the Sower."

Octavia Butler’s sci-fi novel Parable of the Sower was published in 1993 but it has an eerie resonance today: Set in 2024, it follows Lauren, a young black woman whose ability to feel the pain of others informs the way she moves through the world. In this not-so-far-off future, climate change and corporate greed fuel the collapse of the American system with poverty, racism and homophobia running rampant.

It’s with that backdrop that Lauren decides to start a new religion.

Parable of the Sower/Carolina Center of Performing Arts

Now, a quarter-century later, Toshi Reagon has adapted the dystopian novel into an opera with her mother, Sweet Honey in the Rock founding member Bernice Johnson Reagon. Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower sets the story to a cinematic soundtrack performed by a multiracial chorus and orchestra featuring Reagon herself.

“I always tell people there’s a lot of hope in Parable,” she told The Portalist. “And they’re like, what’s hopeful? And I’m like imagine being Lauren Olamina and watching somebody get shot and feeling like you get shot yourself and then getting up and continuing.”

Reagon has workshopped Parable in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, and took the completed work to Abu Dhabi for a premiere earlier this month. It makes its U.S. debut this week The University of North Carolina’s Performing Arts Center in Chapel Hill.

“I would like Parable to go as many places as it can,” she says. “It’s a global story, it just just resonates with humans on the planet, and we are creating it in a way that it can be accessible to different kinds of venues, it doesn’t always have to be in a theater. We want to be able to be in dialogue with people, we want to activate some of the things we’ve learned from the books and one of the things we’ve really learned from the book is denial is not your friend, silence is not your friend, and being immobile is not your friend.”

Reagon believes stories of resistance, resilience and reclamation are more important than ever in the current global climate.

“We keep letting these things happen that we know are not really about being alive on the planet,” she explains. “Seven, eight more years of that will put all of us in the Parable world. And so this is an urgent story. Usually with theater it takes three, four, five years to get someplace, and I’m like no, we need to talk now. We need to be a part of communities that are activating now, we need to have this dialogue now, we need to support each other now.”

Trish Bendix is a Los Angeles-based writer.
@trishbendix