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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The future is now

Toshi Reagon, in the center with arms raised, performs in a concert version of the Parable of the Sower opera.

Octavia Butler’s 1990s science fiction classic Parable of the Sower predicted what life might be like in America in 30 years. Her dystopian world, ravaged by climate change and corporate greed, is a society with a deep divide between the super-rich and everyone else, where fearful people isolate themselves from those of other religions, races or ethnic groups. Outside their gated communities, resources are scarce and chaos and terror reign.

Does any of this sound familiar?

It did to Toshi Reagon, the first Andrew W. Mellon DisTIL (Discovery Through Iterative Learning) Fellow at Carolina Performing Arts, a 2017–19 artist in residence. The singer-songwriter-guitarist’s operatic adaptation of Butler’s vision will make its U.S. premiere at Memorial Hall on Nov. 16–17. (The opera was co-commissioned by the New York University at Abu Dhabi Arts Center, where it made its world premiere Nov. 9.)

“Octavia Butler had imagined a story that took place 30 years in the future and saw how devastating that future was, and we believed her,” Reagon said. “That’s why I’m doing the show now – to create dialogue and to inspire a conversation and a look at where we are at a time when it’s really difficult to do. And I think theater is a great vehicle for that.” Before Reagon arrived at Carolina as an artist in residence earlier this year, she and the cast had performed songs from the opera only in concert and works-in-progress showings. Amy Russell, Carolina Performing Arts director of programming, had followed the work as it developed and knew it would be a good match for a college campus, with its young woman hero (Lauren Oya Olamina) and its theme of the importance of community.

In a way, Lauren’s creation of a new family made up of people she meets along the way has parallels to college life, Reagon said. “It’s very much like people arriving on a campus. Lots of times you don’t know anybody and you don’t know what’s going to happen, so it’s how you find systems that hold you while you go on your journey,” said Reagon, who has gone through a similar process as artist in residence.

“One of the things I’m doing with my project is creating that circle of found family or found community. In Parable, we think of everything as a circle.”

Three centuries of music

In Parable of the Sower, a young woman leads others in a dystopian future.

Reagon shares composer and librettist credit for the opera with her mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon. Mother and daughter are also powerful social activists and musical performers – Johnson Reagon as a founding member of the women’s a cappella groups Sweet Honey in the Rock and the Harambee Singers and Reagon with her rock band BIGLovely. Reagon also composed and performed live with BIGLovely for The Blues Project by Dorrance Dance, led by choreographer and artistic director Michelle Dorrance, a Chapel Hill native.

Combined, mother and daughter cover a wide range of music, which is reflected in the opera’s score. “My mother is an a cappella singer from southwest Georgia. A lot of her music resonates out of 19th century black American singing traditions in the South. I’m a kid whose music originated in the 20th century, with ’60s and ’70s R&B, rock ‘n’ roll and everything,” she said. “It’s like three centuries of musical expression that we pull from. You’ll just hear that full range.”

In Parable, Lauren goes on to found a religion called Earthseed, establishes a community in northern California and believes that the future for the people of Earth is on other planets. As a black woman writing about black protagonists, Butler was an Afrofuturist pioneer in a science fiction universe dominated by white males.

In the typical science fiction story, “there would always be the one black person or the one Asian person and lots of aliens and robots,” Reagon said. But that vision of Earth’s future isn’t supported by the United Nations’ 2015 World Populations Prospects Report, which predicts that one person in four will be African in 2050.

“Now we are looking at the way we will actually be the future,” Reagon said. “We’re working hard to change the dynamics of this perspective of a future being based in whiteness.”

Messages from the book

Reagon is looking forward to being on campus two more semesters after the opera’s premiere, discussing issues raised by Butler’s book with faculty, staff, students and the community.

One of those themes is the importance of getting involved. “The mythology is that someone else will take care of it, but you have to shape your destiny and not be a passive bystander,”she said.

Reagon takes that active role in her life and in her art.

“Theater is a great way to have a wonderful, hard conversation, and that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to put this on the stage,” Reagon said. “Music is a great transformational option to anything that is difficult to digest and sometimes can open what I like to say is the courage part of your heart.”