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An Antidote to a Season of Political Despair

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  • Posted on 20th Jul, 2022 17:47 PM

A group of strangers came together to form a choir for the opera adaptation of Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower—and found more than they expected.

It all started with a mother-daughter bonding over Octavia Butler’s body of work. Bernice Johnson Reagon, a civil rights activist, composer, scholar, and founding member of the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock first started reading Butler’s Kindred. From there, Bernice passed it onto her daughter, the celebrated musician Toshi Reagon.

Mother and daughter exchanged copies of Parable of the Sower over Christmas. The novel, originally published in 1993, follows Lauren Olamina, a 15-year-old Black girl living in the fictional Southern California town of Robledo in 2024. Disenchanted with her father’s Baptist faith and the world that’s ravaged by social inequality and climate change, Lauren flees to Northern California to spread her religion called Earthseed, an ideology based off of humans’ ability to adapt, bend, and mold to their environments.

“I would look at one page and be like, ‘I’m not dealing with this right now,” Toshi says of her first interaction with the novel. “It just gave me like a ‘this is gonna be deep’ type of vibe.’” But Parable kept returning to the Reagons’ lives. Years later, when Toni Morrison was a Princeton University professor in 2007, she tapped Bernice to put Parable to music for her Atelier programming. This was the moment when Toshi read Parable in its entirety. Eleven years later, Toshi’s opera of the now highly sought-after novel began to take root. This July is when New York gets to see the fruit of that labor, with a workshop production at Lincoln Center.

This production comes as Butler’s oeuvre has been experiencing an abundant afterlife. Just last year, The New York Times published an essential list of her writing. Vanity Fair announced that Butler was finally getting the recognition that she deserved (albeit posthumously). The Atlantic deemed one of Butler’s other books, Fledgling, as a “novel for our times.” There’s a television adaptation of Kindred, one of Butler’s most well-known novels, already in the works.

Butler has been heralded as a kind of prophet who knew about our country’s collapse decades before we’re living in it—Parable of the Sower takes place after a president who campaigns on the slogan “Make America Great” brings forth an explosion of racial and economic violence. But Toshi has more complicated feelings about Butler’s now mainstream popularity. “People have been teaching her work for forever. It’s never stopped. There’s a way that we think that because mainstream press or institutions pick up on something, it’s as if it went away and now it’s surfaced by them. But the only reason they had a chance to be a witness to it is because it’s been sustained over time,” she says.

On a sweltering hot Sunday in Harlem, the first rehearsal for the Parable community choir took place. Folks were sitting outside of the Langston Hughes Auditorium, gripping their lyric sheets, waiting patiently. A good few of them had never read Parable of the Sower but showed up for the cause. This was a volunteer choir. Flyers and email blasts were sent to different communities. Absolutely no singing experience was required. Initially the cap on attendees would be at 50 at each of the three rehearsals, but because of the immense interest, the cap was raised to 80. Once the doors to the Langston Hughes Auditorium opened, one by one, a mix of Black, Brown, and white people, from baby boomers to Gen Xers to millennials, filed into the seats. There was a pregnant, anticipated silence in the space before Toshi and three of her opera participants took the stage.

One of the first songs that Toshi and her opera colleagues taught was about how life, death, light, darkness, the universe, and God all shape each other into a “wholeness.” The choir members repeatedly chanted the lyrics, creating an atmosphere akin to a Black church service or a campfire ritual.

Morley, one of Toshi’s longtime friends and a member of the Parable opera, says of the experience, “It’s holding out a specific technology of how to access spirit, community, and survival. Inside that, it’s an education and it’s giving me—and everyone in the cast, I feel safe to say—support in the world of spiritual survival.”

Courtesy of Toshi Reagon

During the rehearsal, there were constant check-ins with the cast about how they were feeling, ample amounts of water, and incorporated breath work and meditations.

There was a distinct hum in the area even before Toshi divided the volunteer choir into different part harmonies. Immediately, I was launched back into a time when I was part of a junior choir in a Pentecostal church in South Jersey. Though I didn’t know the lyrics, I knew the songs. I knew about the circularity of the Divine. I knew about the power of words, because according to the scripture in which I was raised, words were here before anything else existed.

Black religious music is the bedrock of so much of our nation’s understanding of community, synchronicity, singing, and rhythm. Everyone’s presence didn’t only feel appreciated but also warranted. At a most distressing time when rights are being snatched away from our imbalanced governmental powers, to be reminded that every element of this universe is connected and we can share in the wholeness of it all is a gift.

There was a hesitancy from the choir members to sing their parts without guidance. Some looked toward the others in the crowd before they sang their assigned key, but after three repeats, the choir sounded like they had been singing together more than this one time. In that moment, I realized that collective organizing is both the shouts in the streets and the singing in choir practice. This is why the civil rights movement was so closely aligned to the Black church. The Black church itself is an oxymoron to what white churches have told us about ourselves, our bodies, our autonomy. When the voices rang out in the auditorium, we all became just a little bit closer to one another that afternoon, recognizing how whole we truly are beyond our bodies once we tap into our spirits.

Courtesy of Toshi Reagon

Two hundred years of Black music is incorporated into the opera Toshi has created. Bernice herself is a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) Freedom Singers, whose own music was inspired by Black Baptist church music stemming all the way to the 19th century. Toshi, as she likes to call herself, is a “20th-century kid” who seeks to blend Black sacred singing from enslavement to the present in conjunction with Butler’s time leaping in her own novels. “I always tell people to not group spirituals into one idea,” she says. “There is a multitude of technologies that operate sonically. We felt like we needed that span of sound. As Lauren (Olamina) finds her voice, the music becomes more modern, more contemporary to align with her projection.”

Toshi’s initial plan was to do a Parable of the Sower opera in 2008 with the New York City Opera. But the deal fell apart. So Toshi created her own independent production company to facilitate the opera. “I didn’t even know what I was doing,” Toshi admits. There were payrolls, insurance, and all sorts of logistics that Toshi was not thinking about as she created lyrics and vocal arrangements.

Toshi performed a series of her songs at the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival in 2014; the last three that she chose for the performance were those inspired by Parable of the Sower. Shanta Thake, then the associate artistic director at the Public Theater, says, “Meiyin Wang, then co-director of the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival (UTR), and I were like, ‘What is this? Where is this from?’ At that point, I didn’t know the book. From that point on, we became a trio on figuring out how to bring this piece back to life, the life it should have had.”

After being tapped as the new artistic leader for Lincoln Center last year, Thake knew that she wanted Parable to take place at the institution. “Toshi wants to honor the history of the people she comes from,” she says “She will not sign a contract that is anything less than reflecting the exact values of the production. She continues to push people and institutions to meet the work in a way that breaks open some of the systems that have not been questioned in a long time.”

Aside from the often rigid infrastructure of the theater, Toshi had to consider how politics influence performance. Back in 2017, when former president Donald Trump was still in office, Parable of the Sower had its world premiere at the Arts Center of New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus. Now, five years later, fascism is on the rise: Roe v. Wade has been overturned, many politicians are trying to write trans people out of legal existence, the earth’s temperature is rising, and there are loud whispers of same-sex marriage being the next right the Supreme Court will invalidate.

When asked about doing Parable of the Sower during these distressing times, Toshi says, “I feel sad. I think there’s no other time in my life where it’s been so obvious how old, dusty—I can’t come up with enough words, but the technology of war and destruction is so out of time.”

But even in the face of such implacable odds, Toshi, like Butler, has created a blueprint for surviving. “When people sing together, it makes them feel like they are a part of something,” she says. “It pushes loneliness outside of your body. I think everyone needs that right now.”

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