Everything and Earthseed
Directly following the show , I approached a friend who had also just experienced Toshi Reagon’s Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower: the Concert Version, directed by Eric Ting. When she asked what I thought about the performance, “It was everything,” were the only words I could find. Knowingly, she laughed and agreed. Normally trite and uninventive as an adjective, “everything” was exactly what I felt throughout the evening. Octavia E. Butler’s words provided Toshi and her fiercely talented (and accomplished) crew with a structure through which gender, class, race, family, socioeconomics, and spirituality could live and breathe melodiously.
Written in collaboration with her mother Bernice Johnson Reagon, Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower: the Concert Version, adapted from Butler’s post-apocalyptic novel published in 1993, felt speculative in nature. In many ways, the role of speculative fiction is to ask ‘what if?’ (In addition to Parable of the Sower, think: Orwell’s 1984 and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.) What I found striking about Toshi’s performance was that while asking the audience to consider the negative consequences of maintaining systems of oppression, other questions — uplifting questions — were given permission to loom just as largely.
Some overtly, and others in more nuanced ways — through what is widely described as a “soulful” and “genre-bending” performance style — I felt as though Toshi was asking the following questions: ‘What if’ we afford one another and ourselves the opportunity to live fully human lives? ‘What if’ we place love at the center of our interactions with one another? ‘What if’ we allow the power of music to heal us, to transport us? ‘What if’ we honor one another’s narratives in respectful, yet truthful ways?
Embedded in each of those questions is a nod toward universality, equality, and harmony. Along inter-generational, racial, gendered, and gender presentational lines, given how diverse both the audience and performers onstage were, that suggestion seems fitting.
The protagonist of Butler’s futuristic novel is young woman named Lauren Oya Olamina (embodied in the show by Shayna Small). Lauren suffers from a condition called hyperempathy, which causes her to feel and share the pain (or perceived pain) of any living being she encounters. Upon being forced to leave her home, she travels north with several survivors in an attempt to build a new community with the hope that her religion, Earthseed, might take root. Earthseed is based upon the idea that “God is Change.”
With that in mind, one of the final questions Toshi seemed to pose was: What if we radically embrace the notion that God is Change? And if we do, to what degree are we implicated in changing the landscape of the world we inhabit?
As the audience sprang to its feet after the culminating number, I heard my neighbor whisper to her partner that “In no way did that feel like two whole hours.” Outing myself as an eavesdropper, I had to agree. Like them, I was engrossed, and walked away with the knowledge that what I had just experienced was a rare, spiritual communion.
This iteration of Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower is a work-in-progress presentation of her new opera. So, with the best yet to come, I revel in the prospect of sharing space with Toshi in the future, surrendering to a theatrical experience that seems to transcend time and space.
Performers: Bertilla Baker, Helga Davis, Carla Duren, Randy Jeter, Karma Mayet Johnson, Marcelle Davies Lashley, Stephon Lashley, Josette Marchak, Morely, Carl Hancock Rux, Shayna Smalls, Jason Charles Walker
Band: Drums – Bobby Burke, Bass – Fred Cash Jr., Cello – Marika Hughes, Violin – Juliette Jones, Guitar – Adam Widoff