Music to make change? Finding more meaning in the Parable of the Sower

At its best, music can tell us where we are, where we’ve been, and even where we’re going. Or where we could be going, if we get things right.

If you want a validation of that thought, buy a ticket to Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower at The Arts Centre NYUAD for one of the performance on 9-11 November.

The original parable of the sower had much of the sown seed failing: some fell on stony ground and the plants withered because they had no depth of root, some fell among thorns and seedlings were choked – but some fell “on good ground”.

Octavia Butler’s dystopian science-fiction novel, published in 1993, is about the good ground. It’s set in 2020s America where society has largely collapsed into anarchy and violence under the weight of growing wealth inequality, climate change, corporate greed, and attacks against religious and ethnic minorities (sounds familiar?).

Parable of the Sower centres on a teenager, Lauren Olamina, who suffers from ‘hyperempathy’ – a genetic condition that causes her to experience the pain of others as viscerally as her own, a heavy liability in her world of cruelty, hunger and pain.

She begins to develop a new belief system that she comes to call Earthseed that provides an optimistic, alternative future. Why ‘Earthseed’? Because the seeds of all life on Earth can grow, can adapt, and can be transplanted – “The Destiny of Earthseed / is to take root among the stars” (Butler is after all a Sci-Fi writer) and the extraterrestrial transplantation is necessary because we will eventually use up all of Earth’s natural resources. It’s also an analogy:

“Whether you’re a human being, an insect, a microbe, or a stone, this verse is true.

All that you touch / You Change.
All that you Change / Changes you.
The only lasting truth / Is Change.
God / Is Change.”

Change – adaptation, development, growth – is the best goal we can look for. It’s also what we need.

Octavia E. Butler (1947-2006) established herself in the SF field in the 1970s. She was one of the first African-American SF writers, one of only a handful of women in the genre, and possibly the only black women to write science fiction full-time and earn a living at it. She received multiple Hugo and Nebula awards, and in 1995 she became the first SF writer to get a MacArthur Fellowship. She once described herself as “a pessimist if I’m not careful, a feminist, a Black, a former Baptist, an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive”.

Toshi Reagon (“one helluva rock’n’roller-coaster ride”) and her mother, activist/singer/African American cultural icon Bernice Johnson Reagon, have long been fans. After several years of playing with the ideas, in 2015 they put together their initial collaboration on for an operatic song cycle they called Parable of the Sower: the Concert Version. It had its UAE premiere as the opening performance of The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi’s 2015-16 season.

The 2015 show was described a “workshop performance”. There was a bare stage with singers and a five-piece band sitting in a circle around Toshi, harmonising or taking solos without stagecraft or artifice. The results highlighted Reagon’s skills not only as a composer and musician, but impressively also as producer leader and director, making things happen with a nod, a wave, a chord.

It wove together the musical styles of the collaborators; Toshi brought modern rock and folk, Bernice a 19th century black Gospel tradition. Toshi described their process as working seamlessly: “sometimes one of us [wrote] a whole song and the other contributed arrangement ideas. Or my mom [did] an a cappella song and I [wrote] the instrument score.

The results do synthesise a wide range of music taken from a deep reservoir of knowledge about black music in America. “We definitely have, inside of this story, music that comes out of the spirituals, music that comes out of gospel, blues, rock, electronica,” as Toshi Reagon said. “We took a few of the passages from the book and created some music out of those, but we also brought traditional and contemporary African-American music that we thought touched on its themes.”

According to Reagon’s original programme notes, the adaptation uses the music and text to “explore the idea of family – the one you choose – the one you find”. Can we find respite from the evils of the world in comradeship and song?

“It’s about finding your community and finding your way out of trouble and, in some way, rising above what you know to do something truly extraordinary in order to win.”

In 2015 Toshi described Parable as a work-in-progress: “we hope to try out certain ideas, teach ourselves more about the piece and at the same time to produce the infrastructure for the presentation. But it will probably be 2017 before it will be in its full staging.”

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So here we are in 2017, and the fully staged version is ready for its World Premiere – which will be in Abu Dhabi, for The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi co-commissioned it.

And what can we expect? A visceral, thoughtful, dynamic combination of political theatre and 200 years of Black music suffused with insights into gender and race, climate activism, and an ultimately optimistic meditation on the future of human civilisation.

Toshi Reagon called Butler’s book “a kind of a map of our possibilities” in an interview with the Boston Globe.

“I thought it was important to put this story out because I think theatre and music are great ways to communicate difficult things and to inspire people to actually look at them and to face them.”

Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower plays at 8pm on 9, 10 and 11 November in The Arts Center’s Red Theater; check out this preview. Tickets are AED 100 and are available here.

Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower is created by Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon, who are both credited with music and lyrics; Toshi is also Musical Director and lead performer. It is directed by Eric Ting, an Obie Award winner and Artistic Director of California Shakespeare Theater. The libretto is based on the novels Parable of the Sower and its successor, Parable of the Talents, by Octavia E. Butler.

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