A Prescient Sci-Fi ‘Parable’ Gets Set to Music

A Prescient Sci-Fi ‘Parable’ Gets Set to Music

Her adaptation of “Parable of the Sower” is deeply rooted in the African-American sacred music that might be called her family inheritance. But it also incorporates soul, funk, the blues and even a whiff of EDM — “a couple hundred years’ of music that comes out of our country,” Ms. Reagon said.

The director, Eric Ting, described the piece, which will be performed at the Public’s Newman Theater from January 8 to 15, as “a cross between a folk opera and a rock concert.”

The festival bills it simply as an opera.


“I don’t know many black women who haven’t read it,” Toshi Reagon said of Octavia E. Butler’s 1993 novel, which she has adapted into a musical production.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Ms. Reagon began working on the show about 10 years ago, collaborating with her mother, but Dr. Reagon has since retired from writing and performing.

Mark Russell, the director of Under the Radar, described it as “the heartbeat of the festival.” The organization has dedicated significant time and money to the project during a workshop period that included a concert performance at the festival two years ago. The song cycle, which is almost entirely sung-through, has a cast of 14 plus a five-piece band, in addition to Ms. Reagon, who sings and plays acoustic guitar. (The Arts Center at N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi, where the show had its world premiere in November, is among the commissioning organizations.)

Ms. Reagon said it was a challenge to sort out which elements from Butler’s dense novel could be musicalized.

In one case, she turned back to an older song by her mother to dramatize a debate between a character and her minister father. “There’s A New World Coming” originally alluded to colonialism and the war in Vietnam. Here, it addresses the hostile dangers of the world Butler created.

The hero of “Parable of the Sower” is Lauren Oya Olamina, an African-American teenager who is displaced from her California home and creates a new religion while building a community among fellow refugees.

As a black woman, Butler, who died in 2006 as a much-decorated hero of the science fiction world, performed a radical act in simply claiming her own ground in a space where people who looked like her had long seemed invisible. (The cultural critic Mark Dery coined the term Afrofuturism, the year “Parable of the Sower” was published, in part as a response to Butler’s work.)

“When I began writing science fiction, when I began reading, heck, I wasn’t in any of this stuff,” she told The New York Times in 2000. “I wrote myself in, since I’m me and I’m here and I’m writing.”

As a youth, Ms. Reagon would stay up late at night to devour Butler’s books, she said.

“I don’t know many black women who haven’t read it,” she said of the subject of her adaptation. “What’s really incredible is that black people insist on being in the future. Women insist on being in the future.”

And if that future starts looking more and more like a dystopian vision?

“Some people are in complete denial,” she said, “and some people are petrified. So I get to say: If you’re sensing something is off in a way you never have before, you’re right. Something is off. It is urgent.”

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