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'Parable of the Sower' blooms into an opera

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"Parable of the Sower" is an opera based on the Octavia Butler novel.
"Parable of the Sower" is an opera based on the dystopian novel by Octavia Butler.
Courtesy Waleed Shah

Toshi Reagon remembers the first time she got her hands on a copy of Octavia Butler's book "Parable of the Sower."

"I was scared when I first got it," she recalled. "I read two pages. I'm like, 'I'm not doing this.'"

She soon changed her mind. Tonight the O'Shaughnessy in St. Paul presents the opera that Butler's book inspired Reagon to write. It's filled with rock, folk, funk and blues music.

"Parable of the Sower" follows a young black woman as the breakdown of society forces her to flee her home; she goes on to lead a new religious movement. The book was published in 1993, and takes place in 2024. The environment is beyond repair, the government is corrupt, and drug addiction is rampant.

Toshi Reagon co-wrote the music and libretto of “Parable of the Sower”
Toshi Reagon co-wrote the music and libretto of "Parable of the Sower" in collaboration with her mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon, the founder of "Sweet Honey in the Rock."
Courtesy of Erica Blackman

"And she's so accurate," Reagon said. "It's really scary how accurate she was, exactly."

The story starts with 15-year-old Lauren living in a walled-off community in southern California with her preacher father. Lauren sees the signs of all-out societal collapse around her and is preparing for the worst.

As the world is being destroyed by corrupt systems, Lauren's faith pushes people to focus on their own everyday actions — the changes they can make to help each other survive. Reagon said that message resonates today.

"It's a very important story for activists' communities," she said. "It really says you can have almost nothing and still prevail. And so I think a lot of people are seeing a lot of the trouble that is happening in the world and want to know where they are and how to operate from a point of strength."

Reagon created the opera with her mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon. Both mother and daughter are acclaimed musicians. Bernice is a founding member of the all-black female a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock. Toshi dropped out of college when Lenny Kravitz asked to her open for him on his first world tour, and she's gone on to have a successful career in R&B music.

Reagon says people alternately describe "Parable of the Sower" as a rock opera or a folk opera, but the term that resonates most for her is "congregational opera."

"And I love that, because I know that doesn't actually describe necessarily a type of music, but it does really describe what we're trying to do, which is have everybody — the audience, the cast and the music — occupy a space and an energy together, and to take that togetherness as an opportunity," she said.

Togetherness is a main component of survival in "Parable of the Sower." Lauren slowly attracts followers as she explains to them her belief system: "God is Change," she says.  "All that you touch, you change. And all that you change changes you." She calls her faith "Earth Seed."

Cast members from Octavia E. Butler’s "Parable of the Sower."
Cast members from Octavia E. Butler's "Parable of the Sower."
Courtesy of Paul Marotta

"She says we're a part of the entire universe," Reagon said. "Our destiny is to take root amongst the stars. And if you take it seriously, you realize we're already amongst the stars. And isn't that a wonderful and mushy feeling? And don't you get excited about understanding that you are an important and essential part of the universe?"

Octavia Butler followed up "Parable of the Sower" with a sequel, "Parable of the Talents," in which Lauren's followers prepare to leave Earth for a new life on a new planet. Butler had plans for a third book, but died before she could finish it.

"And since Octavia didn't finish that book, I'm like, 'You know what? Everything worked out. We learned to be good to each other and take care of the worlds, all the worlds that we occupy and that are occupied by other beings.'"

"Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower: The Concert Version" takes place tonight at the O'Shaughnessy in St. Paul. And audiences are likely to be treated to more of Butler's works in the near future. Acclaimed film director Ava DuVernay is adapting Butler's "Dawn" into a miniseries, and Amazon Prime Video is producing a new drama based on her book "Wild Seed."