Toshi Reagon’s latest musical project,
“Parable of the Sower,” an opera, debuted last weekend at the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival. Based on Octavia Butler’s post apocalyptic novel of the same name, Reagon’s production puts to music, words spoken by the novel’s main characters.
The opera, which follows the novel closely, opens in the year 2024 in a decaying California filled with violent crime and an inept police force, extreme economic disparity, environmental disaster and water shortages due to climate change (circumstance in which we may draw one too many comparisons to today, makes Reagon’s opera all the more timely). The heroine not only has hyper empathy (feels other peoples pain and pleasure) but begins to divine her own vision of God, ultimately leading a small band of likeminded folks out of the urban chaos and social decay to begin a new community.
“Parable of the Sower” was written by Butler in 1993. That year Toshi and her musician mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon purchased two copies each, one for themselves and one for the other (unbeknownst to one another.) It was purely by “coincidence” Toshi explained, yet Toshi didn’t begin reading the book for another three years. Last year Toshi closed Under The Radar Festival with a concert featuring music from previous operas she had written and participated in. That experience gave her the imputes to pull together a complete opera based on the Butler novel for this year’s festival.
“Parable of the Sower” was a co-written by Toshi and Bernice weaving together both their musical styles; Bernice coming from the 19th century black singing tradition and Toshi from modern rock and folk. Toshi described their collaboration as working seamlessly saying, “sometimes one of us [wrote] a whole song and the other contributed arrangement ideas. Or my mom [did] an a cappella song and I [wrote] the instrument score.”
“Parable of the Sower” highlights not only Reagon’s skills as a composer but a producer, wrangling together all those behind the scenes logistics that make things happen. On stage last weekend this ensemble of 13 singers, harmonizing and taking solos in tight unison, appeared as though they had performed together for years when in fact Toshi had only pulled everyone together a little over a month ago.
Toshi calls this current show a “workshop performance.” The stage has a bare bones set up; the five piece band sits behind the singers with Toshi at the center directing the group with a nod, a look or the strum of her guitar. They perform with out stagecraft or artifice, singing in-the-round to the audience and each other, sometimes standing or seated eyes closed. The immediate familiarity of the tunes, both head bopping groovy and soul stirring liturgical, allows one to easily imagine a more elaborate theatrical performance replete with costume and choreography.
The closing song of the opera is an actual reference to “The Parable of the Sower” as it appears in the synoptic gospel of Mark. The parable, in brief, describes a sower who throws his seed across different terrain. Some seeds fall to the wayside, some on rocky ground, others are snatched by birds, and with the seeds that fall on fertile ground, abundant crop yields.
Throughout history music has been that sacred ritual which unites people by stirring the heart through vibration and sound. “The Spirituals,” Toshi explained, “were music of direction, music that kept you company, music of survival.” While Toshi has no plans for a more elaborate theatrical release she said, “I don’t know what ‘Parable’ will end up looking like, but this is a very intentional workshop performance with the idea of shaping a production that will move around the planet and spread the news.” The way seeds are thrown, blown, and spread across the earth.
“The Parable of the Sower”
last performances, Jan 17 & 18th
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street