In 1993, Octavia Butler imagined the year 2024: There would be intense, apocalyptic climate change leading to the exploitation of workers, a massive refugee crisis, and major violent class disparities. A demagogue would rise to power touting “Christian values” and the slogan “make America great again.” Civil society would erode into chaos and violence in the streets of major U.S. cities. In 2022, Butler’s vision is eerily, terrifyingly prophetic. In light of this, “Parable of the Sower,” a reimagining of Butler’s masterpiece as a gospel-opera, written by Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon and performed at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, sent a timely message of resistance and faith against a backdrop of a not-so-distant apocalypse.
One of the show’s main plotlines revolves around “Earthseed,” a religion invented by the main character Lauren Olamina (Marie Tatti) after she realized that the god of her father, Reverend Olamina (Jared Wayne Gladly), was not sufficient to carry her through the end of the world as she knows it. Aptly, the powerful proclamations of “Earthseed,” “All that you touch, you Change. All that you Change, Changes you. The only lasting truth is Change. God is Change,” were performed in a dynamic gospel musical style in the stage adaptation. The entire opera drew heavily on traditionally Black musical genres, including blues, jazz, and folk music, breathing life into a rich story populated by complex Black characters.
While Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon’s music and lyrics expertly reimagined Butler’s story, it is the actors’ passionate portrayals of the characters and superb musical talent that made the opera so immersive and emotional. Marie Tatti performed a forceful yet still youthful Lauren, and her soaring voice managed to convey prayer, anguish, passion, and confusion in equal turn. Josette Newsam, playing both Mrs. Sims and The Ancestor, filled the space with her stunning, clear vocals. And crucially for a show with little dialogue, Tatti and the rest of the cast effectively utilized body language and space to portray both Lauren’s unusual condition — she was afflicted with “hyperempathy,” a syndrome that causes victims to literally feel other peoples’ pain — and the broader dynamics of a community on the verge of collapse.
The set design, too, deftly complemented the narrative. A thin, gossamer curtain hangs over the scene, evoking the wall surrounding Lauren’s insular community and its fragility. On the metaphorical level, the wall represented how little actually separates those on the inside (the haves) from those on the outside (the have-nots). Desperate outsiders ripped down the wall halfway through the show, appropriately signifying a major turning point: The erosion of artificial class barriers, ordered society, and Lauren’s security.
“When the world’s on fire, what you gon’ do?” asked one of the early musical numbers. The show, in keeping with the book’s purpose, was intensely political and conscious of the present moment. Toshi Reagon — co-creator, co-composer, co-librettist, and musical director — sat in center stage on an elevated platform for the duration of the performance, contributing vocals and guitar, as well as occasionally interjecting to pay special homage to Butler’s original text and to bring “Parable of the Sower” into the context of 2022. The presence of the creator onstage, flanked by “The Talents” — two figures of Reagon’s own creation fashioned in the image of African goddesses — was a powerful statement of ownership over Butler’s story and the critique it makes of American society. The show stared unflinchingly at Butler’s imagined future’s modern-day doppelganger and demanded: What are we going to do?
With a two hour run time with no intermission and a relentless oeuvre of stunning music, the show might have proven overwhelming to the uninitiated viewer. For those unfamiliar with Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower,” the plot and characters of this operatic adaptation might have seemed opaque and confusing. Only a handful of the characters onstage were explicitly named, and nearly everyone in the cast plays two characters. Additionally, some of the precocious inner thoughts of Lauren Olamina that complicate her personality were missing from the stage performance, and so was her unsettling relationship with Taylor Bankole (Toussaint Jeanlouis), which defines the second half of the novel. The opera, to put it simply, was not a mere adaptation but a complex artistic reimagining and should have been treated as such. Audience members needed to read the novel beforehand to be able to fully appreciate the care and genius the creators imbued in this performance.
Octavia Butler’s novel is an impressive, prophetic work of art that has only become more prescient in the decades since its publication. The reimagining of her work as a gospel-inspired opera is nothing short of inspired. The show breathes fresh air into the genre of opera while examining the intersections of race, gender, class, capitalism, climate change, and religion in a way that feels lucid and urgently important.