Parable of the Sower opera puts musical spin on Octavia Butler's sci-fi novel | Pittsburgh City Paper

Parable of the Sower opera puts musical spin on Octavia Butler's sci-fi novel

click to enlarge Parable of the Sower opera puts musical spin on Octavia Butler's sci-fi novel
Photo: Ehud Lazin/Courtesy of Wise Reagon Arts
Parable of the Sower
Despite being published in 1993, late author Octavia Butler's novel The Parable of the Sower more than resonates today. The science fiction work covers climate change, social inequality, and disenfranchisement, and its post-apocalyptic setting reflects a reality that feels frighteningly possible.

These themes are explored through music in Toshi Reagon's operatic adaptation of the book. The work will stage in Pittsburgh for the first time since its 2017 debut at the NYUAD Arts Center in Abu Dhabi.

The show, set to run from Thu., March 30-Sun., April 2 at Point Park University's Pittsburgh Playhouse, has been performed all over the world, including in Singapore and Holland, as well as throughout the United States. 

Reagon, a singer, composer, and producer who conceived the show with her mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon, says that, before the opera, none of the Butler's works had "ever come off the pages before."

"We're the first people to take it off of the page," she tells Pittsburgh City Paper, adding that Butler's work had always been important to her and her mother, and "countless others."

Before her death in 2006, Butler produced an impressive volume of speculative fiction regarded for centering Black or multi-ethnic characters. Many align her with Afrofuturism, a concept that views traditional science fiction through an African-American lens.

The show is described as featuring "30 original anthems drawn from 200 years of Black music."

The Reagon adaptation follows, to a large degree, the same narrative presented in the book. Set in 2024, it follows protagonist Lauren Olamina, a teen girl living in a gated community created to withstand the chaos of an America ravaged by climate change. To combat the social injustices, greed, and corruption surrounding her, Olamina creates a religious movement called Earthseed and, after her community is raided, goes on a journey to find a better way of life.

In a statement, Josie Brown, Dean of Arts and Sciences at Point Park, stresses the eerie timeliness of the story, saying, “As we are on the eve of 2024, it is almost frightening how accurate Butler’s narrative is, and it most certainly catastrophic that we are still fighting the same fight regarding social inequity.”

In an effort to further the message of Butler's acclaimed work, Reagon created The Parable Path, a community engagement program designed to "increase local education and advocacy around the themes of Parable of the Sower." Through this, Reagon and her New York-based production team partnered with various Pittsburgh organizations to create events meant to continue beyond the show's run. 

Since February, the program has organized a diverse lineup of events, including a discussion with The Black Unicorn Library and Archive Project, an exploration of Afrofurturism at City of Asylum, and a nature walk with local queer artist Ginger Brooks Takahashi.

Reagon also performed as part of the recent Sunstar Festival at Kelly Strayhorn Theater, where she says she was introduced to local talent like DJ FEMI, Lola Cole, Casaundra, and host Diarra Imani.

"They're all amazing," says Reagon, adding that she attended the first Sunstar Festival back in 2009. "And it was my honor. It was so much fun."

As for the show itself, Reagon believes that, beyond the "energy of the music," audiences will be drawn in by its bleak, but hopeful message.

"They're gonna recognize the circumstances in the story because it's the circumstances that everyone is living in right now," she says, emphasizing the power of collaboration. "That's why there's Parable Path, because we want people to look at each other and say, 'okay, how can we work together to solve some of these things?'"

Parable of the Sower. Thu., March 30-Sun., April 2. Pittsburgh Playhouse. 350 Forbes Ave., Downtown. $35-73.

Ephemeral art made at Chalk Fest
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Ephemeral art made at Chalk Fest

By Pam Smith