The powerful insights and imagination of the prolific author Octavia E. Butler will take center stage April 28 and 29 at the Strathmore in North Bethesda, Maryland, when her provocative novel, “Parable of the Sower,” is presented on stage.
The opera features the tale of Lauren Olamina and her community as they struggle to survive under dire circumstances. Insights about gender, race and the future of humankind in America count as major themes of the production with more than 30 original anthems drawn from 200 years of Black music also included in this interpretation of Butler’s epic sci-fi tale.
Bernice Reagon Johnson and her daughter, Toshi Reagon, serve as the composers of the score. As for those unfamiliar with Butler, a Black woman publishing a science fiction novel in 1993 should at the very least, peak one’s curiosity. Butler had planned a series of six “Parable” novels but only completed two, “Parable of the Sower” and “Parable of the Talents.”
Now, after years of attempts to convert her Afrofuturist vision to the stage, audiences will see the result of labor-intensive efforts that first took shape as a concert in 2015.
“When the esteemed Bernice Johnson Reagon began this work many years ago, there was a spirit and a grounding that deeply connected to the values that Octavia Butler was trying to lift up in this dynamic story,” said co-director Signe V. Harriday. “With Toshi and co-director Eric Tang, they shepherded this project through many workshops and iterations over many years.”
Audiences worldwide, particularly in the metro D.C. area, have long been familiar with the mother-daughter duo, particularly Bernice, who organized Sweet Honey in the Rock, the three-time Grammy-winning, all-female, African-American a cappella group. In the early 1960s, she served as a founding member of SNCC’s Freedom Singers.
Her daughter, Toshi, has established herself as a composer, curator, producer and as an acclaimed musician who crosses many genres, including folk, blues, gospel, rock and funk. The duo seem ideally suited to co-compose the music and libretto (the lyrics) for “Parable of the Sower.”
Audiences can access a pre-performance, “Parable Path,” which includes resource guides, lectures and conversations with the artists which dive into the many fascinating elements of Butler’s books and reveals Bernice and Toshi’s unique approach to bringing the opera to the stage.
Many will be amazed upon discovering how Butler’s vision of the future, which she foresaw in the 60s, has proven to be so accurate. As a category, her works of Afrofuturism bear similarities to musical art forms created by George Clinton, LaBelle and Prince.
However, Butler also blended African-American art and the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines into her science fiction writing.
“What systemic oppression has done is to diminish the notion that we belong and our futures are possible,” Harriday said. “I think Afrofuturism is an opportunity for us to think about the expansiveness of Black futures and the endless possibilities of Black freedom.”