Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler is one of our favorite books of all time. You could imagine our excitement when we learned queer folk/blues singer Toshi Reagon adapted the post-apocalyptic novel into a concert with her mother, singer and composer Bernice Johnson Reagon. Although Parable, the book,which follows a young woman’s flight for survival and the birth of a new faith, takes place in 2024, the themes around social chaos, violence, and greed are so relevant today. Reagon’s musical rendition of Parable resonates as a powerful wake-up call.
“Don’t watch people on TV protesting and stopping traffic then post something on Facebook saying, ‘This is really disruptive,'” the musician warned during the show’s talkback on Saturday. “Yes. Yes!” Being disruptive is precisely the point, Reagon explained. And she pushes all of us with her Parable performance (and its poignant relevancy) to interrogate our notions of safety and community-building.
The concert version of Parable took place January 10 – 18 at New York City’s Public Theater, as a component of the Under the Radar Festival, “a high-visibility platform to support artists from diverse backgrounds who are redefining the act of making theater.” The performances were a product of what Reagon describes as a 20-year journey.
Butler is one of her “amazing witches.” When she first learned about the book Parable of the Sower back in 1993, it scared her. (Turned out that both she and her mom purchased two copies, one for themselves and one for the other!) But when writer Toni Morrison, one of Reagon’s other “witches,” asked her mother, Bernice, to teach a class on a book, the mother and daughter duo teamed up to talk about Parable. They ended up writing songs inspired by Butler’s body of work throughout the semester.
During the Parable concert, the 13-singer ensemble sits in a semi-circle — with the audience comprising the other half. Reagon comments on the intentional set-up, which weaves a common thread with the book. “[The novel] was about what can you bring and build around community,” she says of the protagonist’s journey to re-create a civilization with other wanderers, and noting how the performance broke the theatrical fourth wall to incorporate attendees.
We were excited to learn that the Parable concert was a workshop and in its first stage of development “to whatever it’s going to be.” We can’t wait to see what sprouts next for the production.
In the meantime, you can catch Toshi at her 31st Annual Birthday Concert, January 21 – 25, at Joe’s Pub in NYC. Visit publictheater.org for more information.