God Is Change: “Octavia E. Butler’s The Parable of the Sower”

Presented by ArtsEmerson
Created by Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon
Co-Directed by Eric Ting & Signe V. Harriday 
Music and Lyrics by Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon 
Music Direction by Toshi Reagon  
Choreography by Millicent Johnnie 
Movement Director: Yasmine Lee 
Performed by Marie Tatti Aqeel, Alina Carson, Helga Davis, Kyle Garvin, Jared Wayne Gladly, Toussaint Jeanlouis, Karma Mayet Johnson, Morley Kamen, Alexandra Koi, Josette Newsam, Shelley Nicole, Toshi Reagon, Noah Virgile, Evie Schuckman Orchestra Monique Brooks Roberts, Zach Brown, Bobby Burke, Fred Cash, Jr., Chogyi, Matt Graff 
Orchestra: Monique Brooks Roberts, Zach Brown, Bobby Burke, Fred Cash, Jr., Chogyi, Matt Graff

April 21 – 24, 2022  
Open Captioning: Fri, April 22 @ 8:00 PM
American Sign Language: Sun April, 24 @ 2:00 PM
Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre 
219 Tremont Street
Boston, MA 02116

Recommended for Ages 13+  

Running Time: 120 minutes, no intermission 

Please Note: Proof of vaccination or a negative test is required for entry

Critique by Kitty Drexel

“All that you touch
You Change.
All that you Change
Changes you.
The only lasting truth
Is Change.
God
Is Change.”
Earthseed, Lauren Olamina in The Parable of the Sower

BOSTON, Mass. — The audience was small on Thursday night but grateful. We’d waited over two years to see Toshi Reagon’s Octavia E. Butler’s The Parable of the Sower. The air was palpable with anticipation. We had each other to talk to and other excited conversations to easedrop on. When the theatre held the house lights for an extra 20 minutes to allow late audience members to straggle in, we were okay with it. 

When the lights finally dimmed to signal the start of the show, a hush fell over us. Finally, after all this waiting, it was time for church. 

Octavia E. Butler’s The Parable of the Sower is an opera adapted by Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon from the Afro-futurist science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler’s novel The Parable of the Sower.  The ArtsEmerson website says it is “a genre-defying, modern congregational opera that celebrates two centuries of Black music.” 

Butler’s Parable of the Sower is about Lauren Olamina (Matie Tatti, who sings the way a ballerina dances) and her family who live on the outskirts of Los Angeles in a gated community. It is 2025, and the US is privatized into capitalist enclaves. Drugs, disease, war, chronic water shortages, and dirty politics have broadened class divides. They believe the walls keep them safe. 

Lauren’s father, Rev. Olamina (Jared Wayne Gladly) leads a congregation in their walled community  He preaches about righteousness as the world outside the walls burns. Lauren has hyperempathy; she can feel and is viscerally sensitive to the pain of others. Unbeknownst to her father, Lauren is developing her own relationship with God; God is change. 

After a fire burns down the compound, Lauren and other refugees leave the walled community. They look for safety and humanity in a dystopian world that respects money but disrespects everyone without it. Lauren develops her Earthseed spiritual practice and passes as a man. She finds family and God in the most unlikely of places. 

The Reagons assume we know Butler’s work; They emphasize the novel’s heart and soul instead of unloading its plot point by point onstage. The opera is called Octavia E. Butler’s The Parable of the Sower. The title alone expects an audience to know the source material. 

The opera loosely follows the novel through song and uncluttered staging. To be clear: the audience doesn’t see many of the novel’s events unfold onstage like in traditional opera or a traditional musical. This opera is highly abstract. We hear what the novel is so we don’t have to see what the characters do. It is akin to the difference between reading The Bible and seeing a concert production of Jesus Christ Superstar. (There the similarities end.)

Over half of the opera is lightly staged. The ensemble sits on blonde benches arranged in a horseshoe facing the audience. Overhead a white curtain, also in a horseshoe above the ensemble and the orchestra, floats like a halo. The Talents (Toshi Reagon, Helga Davis, and Shelley Nicole, like three omniscient muses) sit on a raised platform where they sing and speak narration. The orchestra is on a slightly higher platform behind the Talents. The cast and orchestra remain in this arrangement until the walled community is raised by fire. 

Reagon frequently breaks the fourth wall. She cheekily threatens to stop the performance if the audience doesn’t sing too. Her compositions are inspired by Gospel, rock and folk traditions. If a person can follow a church songbook or the bouncing ball at a ball game, they can sing along with Reagon and the cast. The sing-a-long is cathartic – if you let it be.  

“The Olivar Blues” has a catchy tune and simple lyrics that repeat and ring true. “Don’t let your baby go/Don’t let your baby go to Olivar.” Olivar could be Amazon; it could be any of the big banks supported during the quarantine, any of the union busting companies forcing employees to work as coworkers died. It’s easier to sing with Reagon than it is to form a union. Sing with her because it’s cheaper than therapy.

The three Talents on the raised platform watch over the action before them like gods: they don’t judge; they don’t interfere; they empathize and sing with rich harmonies like angels among us. The Talents speak up when the opera becomes particularly abstract with a brief explanation or, in the case of the fire, with transitory exposition. The Parable of the Sower is a novel; there is a lot to remember. Their interruption is particularly welcome in the second half when the audience has been seated for over and hour and needs a pick-me-up. They intercede on our behalf and the show’s pacing is restored.

The voices in this production are fantastic, just glorious to experience. The theatre is my church and Octavia E. Butler’s The Parable of the Sower reminded me why I go: for community, for clarity; to rejoice; to mourn; and to feel renewed. The singing and the music follow in folk, rock and gospel traditions. These are artist musicians who practice as a matter of discipline and devotion. It is unpretentious and beautiful.

Marie Tatti and Jared Wayne Gladly sing with great expression and lyricism. Tatti and Gladly are the leads so it’s easier to compliment them. But truly, all of the voices, from small role to large, are beautiful. The ensemble works as a whole with the orchestra to create great art. One person less and the work would be diminished. 

The orchestra rocks. That’s a solid band of musicians telling a story through music, right there. The balance of voices with the orchestra is a little off. Everything is a little loud to compensate (it’s a concert). Earplugs for sensitive ears are recommended.  

The lighting design by Christopher Kuhl is the strongest non-musical element that brings Octavia E. Butler’s The Parable of the Sower to life. Kuhl’s lighting sets the tone without words or song. The lights are white and pure before the fire. House lights are at half and the audience can see each other across the theater. The lights dim; the theater gets dark when the walls fall. The ensemble and orchestra are bathed in reds, yellows and oranges when Lauren and the refugees travel towards safety. Everyone looks a little anemic. I felt thirsty. 

Audience members will recognize the essence of The Parable of the Sower in the Reagons’ opera. They will find similarities between Butler’s vision of 2025 from 1993 and now: corporations have more rights than people because they have more money; our Earth is polluted; inflation is at an all time high; some people will find hope where there is none; everyone is doing the best they can. People are people. Our technology and perspectives change but people remain the same. 

I highly recommend reading and rereading Butler’s The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents. All of Butler’s writing is excellent. It can get emotionally violent but humans are emotionally violent creatures. Peace is unlikely in our dystopian future. It can’t even be purchased now, and we have more money than capital.  

The Reagons’ Octavia E. Butler’s The Parable of the Sower is for people who enjoyed the novel. It’s for Afro-futurists. It’s for science fiction lovers. It’s for people who like a lot of rock in their church service and some church in their rock concerts. If you don’t like those things, this show is not for you. 

Please do your research. I recommend audiences become familiar with Butler’s Parable novels before attending the opera. It won’t make sense without at least some basic knowledge. There is a brief synopsis in the program but it barely scratches the surface of Butler’s alternative reality. The music will still be glorious. An attendee that enjoys the music without knowing the novel first will come to love the novel when they read it.  

“The Parable of the Sower,” Matthew 13:1-23
A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no roots. Other seeds fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown.

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