“When I looked at Octavia’s timeline, I realized that her story starts in 2024, when slavery is starting up again,” Reagon says in a phone interview. “The government is giving up on being a good government, and fires and droughts are ravaging the environment. That’s not so different than what’s on the news. It’s an emergency; we all have to do something in our communities to stop that from happening. I felt like we have to get this show out there before it’s too late.”
Butler, who died in 2006, won a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 1995, as well as multiple science fiction prizes, despite being a Black woman in a field dominated by White men. Three of her books are being turned into cable TV series, so this opera version of “Parable of the Sower” is the first in a coming wave of adaptations. The opera’s multiracial cast relies on gospel, blues, folk, rock and spirituals to bring out Butler’s themes of crisis and opportunity, autocracy and democracy.
Like the book, the opera — which Strathmore is co-presenting with Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company — follows a teenager named Lauren who is living in a gated community outside Los Angeles. The walls provide flimsy protection from the corporate work camps, roving gangs and rain-starved desert outside. When those walls are finally overwhelmed, halfway through the show, Lauren and two friends flee northward across that same dangerous landscape. The protagonist reinforces the hopes of her friends and of the strangers who join them by preaching a new gospel, based on the idea that “God is change,” a change that will take the followers of what she calls “Earthseed” — her new religion — to another planet.
“This belief system is grounded in our planet and in our destiny to plant a new community in the stars,” Reagon declares. “How do we exist together? How do we problem solve? They do this when they have nothing but themselves. That reminds me so much of what my ancestors had to create just to survive. So musically, we root the show in that music. It sounds like gospel, but it’s really spirituals from back in the 19th century.”
Reagon grew up in Washington when her mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon, was music director for a local theater group, the DC Black Repertory Company. Toshi was surrounded by theater and music so often that combining the two into this opera almost seemed inevitable. And when her mother formed the all-female a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock at the BRC, the vocal group’s emphasis on gospel and spirituals led to the music that the younger woman would use in “Parable of the Sower” and her own solo recordings.
Bernice Johnson Reagon: Sweet Honey loses its queen bee
“I never had any competitive or segregated thing with my mom,” Reagon says. “If I said, ‘I want a drum set,’ she’d get me a drum set. If I said, ‘I want a bass,’ she’d get me a bass. I was a big comic-book kid; I had thousands of comic books. When I became a teenager, my mom gave me Octavia’s ‘Kindred,’ and soon we were trading books back and forth, a lot of sci-fi and fantasy.”
In fact, mother and daughter began “Parable” as a joint project, first in a Princeton seminar led by Toni Morrison and later as a concert suite of songs. When Bernice retired in 2014, it was left to Toshi to get the opera on its feet and on the road. In videos of recent performances, she sits atop a riser in the middle of the stage, narrating the action with terse comments and directing the music with her acoustic guitar and voice. Behind her are five instrumentalists; flanking her are two female vocalists, and before her are 11 actors.
“We don’t stop and talk,” she explains, “because it’s an opera, not a musical. I love telling stories through music. It makes so much sense to me.”
Strathmore Music Center, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda
. 301-581-5100. strathmore.org; woollymammoth.net.