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Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower Fights Injustice with Black Music and Sci-Fi in UNC’s Memorial Hall

When you hear the phrase “science fiction,” what do you imagine? Artificial Intelligence gone berserk (as in the works of Isaac Asimov and Phillip K. Dick)? The alternate realities of Raymond Bradbury and Douglas Adams? You know, space stories by old white guys.

You might have thought about Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Mary Shelley, or Madeleine L’Engle. If you did, you’re my kind of reader.

It is unlikely that you imagined brilliant black women, such as Nalo Hopkinson, Nnedi Okorafor, Nora K. Jemisin, or the great Octavia E. Butler, whose Parable of the Sower has been transformed into an opera by .Toshi Reagon. and .Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, and is having its U.S. premiere in Chapel Hill, NC, on Nov. 16th and 17th as part of the Carolina Performing Arts series.

Since its introduction in the 17th century, sci-fi has been oft thought of as an old white guy’s game. Female authors, especially women of color, have a perspective that is rarely represented in any genre, much less sci-fi.

Based on a pair of acclaimed science fiction novels by Octavia E. Butler, The Parable of the Sower is a 2015 opera written by folk/blues/gospel musician Toshi Reagon and her mother — songwriter, scholar, and activist Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon. After hearing this opera, you would not be surprised to discover that Toshi Reagon is folk musician Pete Seeger’s goddaughter, nor that both of her parents were Civil Rights leaders and musicians.

Butler’s 1993 novel Parable of the Sower earned great acclaim; and in 1995, she became the first science-fiction author to receive the MacArthur Fellowship. A sequel, Parable of the Talents, followed in 1998. Both books have been favorably compared to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. A long-discussed third novel was never to be written; Butler died in 2006.

In 2010, to honor her 40 years of exceptionally thoughtful writing, Butler was posthumously inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame, alongside sci-fi icons Richard Matheson (author of I Am Legend) and Douglas Trumbull (special effects designer for 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner).

Octavia E. Butler's <em>Parable of the Sower</em> had its dress rehearsal (shown here) at the NYUAD Arts Center in New York City and its U.S. Premiere on Nov. 16th and 17th in UNC-Chapel Hill's Memorial Hall (photo by Waleed Shah Studio)

The opera based on Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower had its dress rehearsal (shown here) at the NYUAD Arts Center in New York City and its U.S. Premiere on Nov. 16th and 17th in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall (photo by Waleed Shah Studio)

Science fiction has always been a megaphone for social commentary. Butler’s work merged sci-fi with themes of gender and — in particular — race. Subtlety does not work on the ignorant, so Parable’s message is unambiguous and instructive: this is what is wrong and this is how we will fix it. It is a prophecy, translated clearly and passionately by Reagon & Reagon in their surprising opera, which will be performed once more at 8 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 17th, in the University of North Carolina’s Memorial Hall.

This is not an opera in the sense that one would expect. The 90-piece orchestra of Richard Wagner is replaced by a six-member pit band, led by Toshi Reagon on guitar. Reagon – who is also the musical director — has culled an exemplary musical team: percussionist Bobby Burke; bassist Fred Cash, Jr.; cellist Eric Cooper; violinist Juliette Jones; and guitarist/pianist Adam Widoff. This versatile outfit conveys the moving and entertaining 30-song score, inspired by two centuries of black music.

Notable stylistic influences include the black spirituals and work songs of the 19th century; 1950s rock and roll; the protest songs, folk, and R&B of the 1960s; and 1970s funk. These styles are used fluidly in the piece — the Reagons avoiding a checklist of pastiche musical numbers. This Rhythm & Blues Opera honors the music that would later be co-opted by the great rock legends and inspire Rock Operas, such as Jesus Christ Superstar and Tommy.

On Thursday night, singers were given a midshow break while Toshi Reagon spoke against the North Carolina General Assembly’s life-threatening, anti-environmental legislation. Like Octavia Butler, Reagon shares some of our formidable worries: environmental degradation, social injustice, religious fanaticism, and unchecked governmental corruption. This opera plays with broad paint strokes, not fine details — a necessary difference between many books and their adaptations.

Reagon serves as master of ceremonies, and seeks to facilitate a dialogue with her audience. She welcomes us to join the musicians and performers as participants.

The house lights of UNC’s Memorial Hall were dimmed only slightly for the show’s first half, keeping the audience fully visible to the actors and to each other — a reminder for the audience that (1) if you are trapped in a cycle of oppression, you are not alone; and (2) if you are not oppressed, you must not ignore your neighbors who are.

“Don’t get all theater on me,” Reagon demanded last night. “Don’t retreat back into your seats. Make some noise when you feel like it.” And that we did.

As the barrier between show and spectator faded, the crowd began to answer back, worship service-style. Shouts of “Amen” could be heard as open-minded characters challenged their closed-minded parents; cheers from the crowd accompanied impressive vocal runs; and a standing ovation celebrated the opera’s penultimate song (due to grand staging of the song, we mistook it for the finale).

In the opera — like the novel — the year is 2024. The place is the fictional walled-in town of Robledo. A Greek chorus of sorts, “The Talents,” features Reagon — our guitar-strumming storyteller — and Carla Duren and the captivating, vibrant Helga Davis.

Our heroine, Lauren Olamina (a genuine Shayna Small) implores her church, led by her father, the Rev. Olamina (Jason Charles Walker) to prepare for their world to turn upside-down. She questions the God of her forebearers, a tactic not well-received by the matronly Mrs. Sims (a formidable Josette Newsam-Marchak).

 

“God is change,” the opera will cry again and again. Lauren is an “empath” and can feel the pain of others — a characteristic less clear on the stage than in the novel.

Some of the book’s other familial elements are eschewed for simplicity’s sake. The multiple wives of Richard Moss (Tariq Al-Sabir) and cousin-lover relationship of Joanne (Morley Kamen) and Harry (Tomas Cruz) are not addressed. But the libretto, acting, and staging provide an ample sense of cult-like community.

After Robledo is destroyed, a small band of young survivors heads north across a post-apocalyptic California to plant their seed in fertile soil, forming a new, peaceful land called “Earthseed,” where equity reigns and the water runs clean. With our characters now scattered, Millicent Johnnie’s choreography — dependent on group unity and physical closeness — helps bring them back together.

Scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado and lighting designer Christopher Kuhl present an abstract, sci-fi environment for the opera’s second part, including a large reflective silver seed, floating high above the stage — a reminder of our seed-sowing mission and dipping our toe into high-concept Afrofuturism.

Costume designer Dede M. Ayite keeps things clear and simple, providing distinction between the survivors’ two distinct lives: peaceful churchgoers and guerilla survival league. The removal of sound-absorbing curtains from the stage area results in an echo chamber in which some words are lost, but the tight harmonies still ring strong.

The dynamic score is the rich soil in which this production is planted. Director Eric Ting’s staging is somewhat interesting, but the plotline is sometimes muddled by unclear direction. Poor sightline awareness results in some disappearing actors. Since the show is general admission, get there early and avoid the side seats.

Still, pacing was brisk enough that the absence of an intermission did not distress me, even with a 2+-hour running time.

In its current form, The Parable of the Sower exists somewhere between live concert (Part 1) and stage production (Part 2). Obviously, the intention is to build a sense of community in Part 1 and to toss things into chaos for Part 2, which director Eric Ting accomplished. But as theatricality and abstraction increased, audience engagement seemed to decrease.

Perhaps, Octavia Butler and Toshi Reagon achieved their goal. We began to feel lost. We yearned for the safety and closeness of our Part 1 loved ones, as imperfect as our little village was. I hope — as our heroine does — that such spirit can return, in the form of Earthseed. The lengthy, boisterous ovation at the production’s end suggests that Toshi Reagon has conveyed Octavia Butler’s optimistic call-to-action.

SECOND OPINION: Nov. 15th Durham, NC Indy Week preview by Nicole Berland: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/pioneering-african-american-sci-fi-author-octavia-butlers-empathy-and-foresight-take-the-stage-in-parable-of-the-sower/Content?oid=9514153; and Nov. 13th Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel (student newspaper) preview by Olivia Clark: http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2017/11/parable-of-the-sower-1113.

Carolina Performing Arts presents Octavia E. Butler’s PARABLE OF THE SHOWER at 8 p.m. Nov. 17 in Memorial Hall, 114 E. Cameron Ave., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.

TICKETS: This performance is SOLD OUT. Contact 919-843-3333 or CPAtixquestions@unc.edu to add your name to the waiting list.

SHOW: https://www.carolinaperformingarts.org/ros_perf_series/octavia-e-butlers-parable-of-the-sower/, https://www.facebook.com/events/235471560321569/, and https://www.facebook.com/events/283803888693881/.

VIDEO PREVIEWS: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ds1rNB2jJB8, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=URQKNloTfu0, and https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=uUPOzGI0owY.

PRESENTER: http://www.carolinaperformingarts.org/, https://www.facebook.com/pages/Carolina-Performing-Arts/9560250967, https://twitter.com/uncperformarts, and https://www.youtube.com/user/UNCPerformArts.

BLOG (The Overture): https://www.carolinaperformingarts.org/the-overture-blog/.

VENUE: https://www.carolinaperformingarts.org/ros_venue/memorial-hall/, http://unchistory.web.unc.edu/building-narratives/memorial-hall/, and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UNC_Memorial_Hall.

MAPS/DIRECTIONS: https://www.carolinaperformingarts.org/visit/getting-here/.

PARKING: https://www.carolinaperformingarts.org/visit/parking/.

OTHER LINKS:

Parable of the Sower (1993 novel): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parable_of_the_Sower_(novel) (Wikipedia).

The Novel: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).

Octavia Estelle Butler (novelist, 1947-2006): http://octaviabutler.org/ (official website), https://www.parableopera.com/authors/ (Parable of the Sower bio), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Octavia_E._Butler (Wikipedia).

Parable of the Sower (2017 opera): https://www.parableopera.com/ (official website), https://www.facebook.com/Octavia-E-Butlers-Parable-Of-The-Sower-The-Opera-146519775861716/ (Facebook page), and https://twitter.com/biglovely1 (Twitter page).

Toshi Reagon (creator, writer, and composer): https://toshireagon.com/ (official website), https://www.parableopera.com/authors/ (Parable of the Sower bio), https://www.carolinaperformingarts.org/toshi-reagon/ (CPA bio), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toshi_Reagon (Wikipedia).

Bernice Johnson Reagon (creator, writer, and composer): http://www.bernicejohnsonreagon.com/ (official website), https://www.parableopera.com/authors/ (Parable of the Sower bio), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernice_Johnson_Reagon (Wikipedia).

Eric Ting (director): http://ting.theredcolobus.com/ (official website) and https://www.goodmantheatre.org/artists-archive/creative-partners/directors/eric-ting/ (Goodman Theatre bio).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Dustin K. Britt, a Triangle native, is an actor and director. He holds an M.A.Ed. in Special Education from East Carolina University and teaches locally. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment. You can find him on Facebook as Dustin K. Britt and via his movie blog Hold the Popcorn.

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Categorised in: A&E Theatre Reviews, Lead Story, Reviews