Set in 2024, Pasadena-raised author Octavia E. Butler’s acclaimed novel “Parable of the Sower” no longer feels futuristic. When it was published in 1993, reviewers described it as a warning cry. Now its themes of self-created community, environmental devastation, water scarcity, economic inequality, homelessness, and corporatization of society and politics dominate our daily news.
Musician and activist Toshi Reagon cited the ongoing relevance of Butler’s writing when she announced that she and her mother, social justice activist and Sweet Honey in the Rock founder Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, had adapted “Parable of the Sower” into a folk opera, one that weaves together blues, EDM, funk, gospel, rock and soul. It also draws a bit on the 2030s-set “Parable of the Talents,” the second of Butler’s “Earthseed” novels, and received its unconventionally staged world premiere in New York in November 2017 and boasted a cast of 14 actors and singers plus a five-piece band and Reagon, singing and playing acoustic guitar.
Tuesday night Reagon will perform selections from that opera during an event highlighting connections between present-day LA and Butler’s “Earthseed” series at the Huntington, where Butler’s papers are archived. Reagon will also join a discussion with Fuller Theological Seminary Ph.D. student Phil Allen, City of Hope data scientist Shelley De Leon, 2018 Los Angeles Youth Poet Laureate Sophie Kim, Art|Religion|Culture co-executive director and Butler-fascinated theology/ethics Ph.D. student Tamisha Tyler, and multimedia artist and Space Exploration Architecture co-founder Melodie Yashar. Emceed by Claudia L. Peña, the event will be presented in association with UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance (Reagon is taking the full production of “Parable of the Sower” to UCLA’s Royce Hall on March 7).
As a literary work, “Parable of the Sower” was a foundational brick in the cli-fi or climate fiction genre. It tracks an agnostic preacher’s daughter named Lauren who believes “God is change,” not a fundamentalist rule-keeper, and who struggles to conceal the hyper-empathy that makes her feel the pain of others in the gated LA-area community where her family subsists after an environmental cataclysm. When a violent attack decimates their outpost, Lauren must rely on her own vision of faith and justice to lead a tiny crew of survivors to safety and their own community in Northern California.
Onstage, “Parable of the Sower” extends the tradition of political theatre, a la classics such as Marc Blitzstein and Orson Welles’ corruption-minded 1937 play with music “The Cradle Will Rock,” the Vietnam-shadowed 1960s hippie musical “Hair,” and even Anna Deavere Smith’s nonmusical documentary theatre works (“Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” “Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education”). It is also of a piece with Reagon’s eclectic, socially conscious music and family tradition. At press time the event was filled but a waiting list was available.
The President’s Series presents Octavia E. Butler’s Parables: A Music Talk With Toshi Reagon in Rothenberg Hall at the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, 7:30-9:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 7; call (626) 405-2100 for waiting list details. Toshireagon.com, parableopera.com, Huntington.org