‘Parable of the Sower’ at Strathmore becomes a musical community ritual

Called a 'congregational opera' by its creators, Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon, the performance offered up a benediction of hope and faith.

“Be a little less of a theater audience and a little more of a community.”
— Toshi Reagon, from a “backstage” video of rehearsals for Parable of the Sower

You may be, as I was, left breathless and speechless at times by Toshi and Bernice Johnson Reagon’s fervent, take-no-prisoners adaptation of Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler’s novel about our dystopian present. You will not, however, be left despondent (or any of the other words evoking physical depletion that the pandemic has made ever present in our current conversations). This work, in its plot, in its structure, and in the way it insists on audience connection and participation gives us an example of what can happen when we give our efforts to the forming of community. It suggests that taking action to form community is itself an energizing force that dispels despondency.

In the time when Parable of the Sower takes place (two years from now, in fact), the effects of climate change are no longer up for debate. The turning over of public resources to private ownership, an increasing wealth gap, and the corporatization and monopolization of everything has caused life in America to so deteriorate that those middle-class neighborhoods that can have built walls to protect themselves from marauding gangs. Lauren Olamina (the thrilling Marie Tatti Aqeel) lives with her family in one such community that is organized by her father Rev. Olamina (played with heartrending tenderness by Jared Wayne Gladly). Rev. Olamina’s faith in an unchanging God and the vision that is rooted in that faith have held things together for this community until now. But for Lauren that faith and vision no longer work. In contrast to her father, she has come to believe that “God is Change” and that their community must adapt to that truth. In due time the walls of the community are breached and Lauren loses her family in that process. Disguised as a man she sets out, with two other members of the ravaged community, on a journey of survival. The nascent religion (she names it Earthseed) becomes her guide for survival. As the trio travels and continues to survive, they are joined by others and a moving community begins to take shape in which the principles of Earthseed continue to be developed and tested for efficacy in helping people survive. The story ends with Lauren in her community (and us in ours) continually rediscovering and recommitting to the work of making community.

Toshi Reagon and ensemble perform Octavia E. Butler’s ‘Parable of the Sower,’ a congregational opera.

One obstacle to this opera for some people is the way it is suffused with religion, and specifically Afro-American versions of Christianity, as a central element in the plot. Another obstacle for some people is accepting that this work is an opera. This opera does not center European art music in its storytelling. Its score spans music from a variety of American genres. In doing so, it also demonstrates and celebrates how much those genres are extensions of the African American blues and spirituals traditions (also among the musical genres included in the score are rock, funk, and folk music). This score also appreciates and makes subversive dramaturgic use of the recitative that one can hear in Black churches during prayer and testimony services on any Sunday the Lord sends. Elsewhere Toshi has referred to Parable as a “congregational opera,” a work and process in which you can “have everybody — the audience, the cast, and the music — occupy a space and an energy together, and to take that togetherness as an opportunity.”

This is an opera about a tragically self-destructive and short-sighted period of human existence that is being produced during a time that is almost a mirror reflection of those circumstances. So it seemed appropriate to me that the set and staging reflected the oldest western theater roots that most of us know of — the classic Greek drama. Like an ancient Greek amphitheater, the set was sparsely decorated with what was essential and resonant only. (Scenic work was by Arnulfo Maldonado.) A thin curtain hung in a semi-circle above the performers suggesting the fragile walls of the gated community that kept the community together and the barbarians out. Benches were placed in a semi-circle beneath, echoing the position and shape of the curtain: these were for a meeting and worshipping space. When the walls were breached, the semi-circles of curtains and benches were removed and three large abstract paintings of swirling red, blue, yellow, and white — suggestive of the fires and chaos raging in the lives of the characters — were hung.

The Talents, three singers who functioned as a “Greek” chorus, were placed upstage center, slightly behind the protagonists of this opera. (The Talents were a major portion of this production. Since they functioned as a Chorus, for the sake of clarity, I will refer to them that way. Toshi, as one of the three Talents, functioned as the Chorus Leader.) The orchestra was seated behind the Chorus.

Toshi Reagon and ensemble perform Octavia E. Butler’s ‘Parable of the Sower,’ a congregational opera.

All of the action in the first part took place in this semi-circular space. Characters entered from the wings and at times through the audience. The house lights remained on through the early portions of the first half of the performance. Once the community walls are breached, the stage goes to black and all of the set pieces are removed. And when the lights come up again, there is a sole spotlight on Lauren Olamina singing “Has Anybody Seen My Father?” When the light spreads and we see that the protagonist performing space is now shapeless, we understand that we are seeing the experiences of directionless and unmoored people. This was one effective use of lighting (Christopher Kuhl) among many in this piece.

The use of the Chorus in Parable is highly effective and entertaining. While we can only imagine the relation the Chorus in ancient Greek tragedy had to the Greek theater going public, in this production, the Chorus has a stimulating immediacy. In fact, the use of the Chorus in this production gives us some idea of the relation the Chorus in ancient theater might have had for its viewers. The Chorus sometimes functions as a group (as a duo or as a trio) providing support to the protagonist performers, commenting on the action, in classical fashion, or embodying atmospheric elements such as the daily radio broadcasts. Then sometimes the Chorus Leader steps outside the group to engage in some surgically precise encounters with the audience. Toshi’s celebrity status allows her as Chorus Leader to have an intimate connection with the audience, to access their vulnerability, and to engage in conversations that access and rely on a shared understanding of what is culturally important for this particular community. It allows her to more directly represent to the audience the ways in which this story, while a fictional representation, is actually their story and that it demands their attention and response as real-life citizens.

In her first entrance as the Chorus Leader, Toshi drew pointed connections between the audience’s lives and the text. Speaking to the audience about itself she says:

You spend some money, you put yourself in a room, you’re here to watch “theahtuhr.” But here’s an opportunity: we are a tribe in a community inside of a wall. And who knows what is going on the outside? We can make some assumptions:

That the show will end;
We’ll be like “Oh my God, that was amazing;”
And go outside and get back home.
Or something else could happen… and this could be our base of operations.
So, that’s the territory we are going to work on tonight… Don’t sit back in your chair and try to go to sleep …put yourself inside the music that you hear… be with us all in this space together.

The performers, costumes, set, choreography, and direction all served the needs of the production incisively. I remember watching the cast walk in formation across the stage and at one moment make a turn as though going around a corner and suddenly without having to make any additional adjustments they were in a new structured and focused formation. I wanted to rewind and watch them do that again. (Choreography is by Millicent Johnnie.) All of the performers were fiercely committed and passionate. Eric Ting and Signe V. Harriday’s direction held this multi-leveled, multi-form work together with a confidence that allowed both audience and performers to fully engage with each other and the issues being presented.

Toshi Reagon and ensemble perform Octavia E. Butler’s ‘Parable of the Sower,’ a congregational opera.

I was raised on some of the religious music that is used in Parable. Some of the songs I learned as a child growing up in the Church of God in Christ were “Take Me to the Water,” “We Shall Not Be Moved,” “All My Appointed Time.” We hoped that those songs formed a moral and invisible shield around us like the one that Rose attempts to build around herself and her family in August Wilson’s Fences when she sings “Jesus, build a fence all around me.” And like the wall that Reverend Olamina and his community build. Toshi Reagan elsewhere elaborates on these songs and this music that forms the score of this opera. She reminds us that these songs are

…for you. And it’s not a museum. Every time it’s performed, it’s actually a live call. And it’s a live testimony. And it doesn’t matter where you are. So, you really got to understand the treacherous place you live in… When they made these songs up that was all people had. That was all people had. And they was singing them in a jail. And they was singing them while they were being attacked. And they were singing them in all kinds of situations. And the songs won. The songs won.

There is more going on in the creation and mounting of this show than simply mounting a new opera. While I am a theater fan “from the rising of the sun until the setting of the same,” these songs, used in the knowledgeable and respectful way they are used here, call to a different part of me. If, as some history of theater texts point out, theater has its roots in ritual, then maybe what we brazenly call “show business” is essentially a religio-spiritual process (i.e., the showing and seeing of ourselves with each other) that has been commodified. Is this essentially letting the money changers run the temple? Is Judy Garland’s legacy for Liza Minelli a survival of this commodification? (She was referred to as “the property known as Judy Garland “in legal papers with the film production company.) Is Bernice Johnson Reagon’s legacy for Toshi Reagon a path that retains music as a technology for maintaining people as community rather than property?

One of the greatest pleasures I got from this production was the way it ended. The narrative tale of Lauren Olamina and her journey and the journey of other people like her (and like us) had come to as much of a conclusion as it could have. Things remained unsettled simply because as Reverend Olamina had said, “You can’t tell the future. No one can.” So, what to do? All the benches were brought back on stage and placed in the same semi-circle configuration we saw them in at the beginning of the opera. All the actors came out and sat down. Toshi began to sing something that she did not ask us to join in with. Of all things, at the close of this “congregational opera,” she offered up a benediction that was composed of the actual biblical parable itself set to music. (Yay, Bach!) The other performers joined with her in harmony and counterpoint. The sung parable acknowledged the uncertainty of everything. And with its concluding stanza, suddenly becoming loud enough to shake both our bodies and the walls of the Strathmore Music Hall, it demanded that we have the courage to surrender the secular certainty of optimism and, instead, to (in the words of Cornel West) “make a leap of faith. To go beyond the evidence, attempt to create new possibilities based on visions that become contagious to allow us to engage in heroic actions always against the odds no guarantee whatsoever.” In short, this benediction demanded that we embrace hope. Here are a few of the words of that benediction.

A sower went out to sow her seed
And as she sowed
Some fell by the wayside
And it was trodden down
And as she sowed
Some fell by the wayside
And of it the birds did eat

A sower went out to sow her seeds
And as she sowed
Some fell on fertile ground
Some fell on good ground
From it the plants did grow
From it the flowers bloomed
And in due time
Came forth bearing fruit
A hundred fold
A hundred fold
A hundred fold
A hundred fold

Parable of the Sower performed on April 28 and 29, 2022, co-presented by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company at The Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda, MD.

Parable of the Sower trailer

 

Octavia E. Butler’s
PARABLE OF THE SOWER
Created by Toshi Reagon & Bernice Johnson Reagon
Co-Directed by Eric Ting & Signe V. Harriday
Co-presented by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

CAST
Marie Tatti Aqeel, Alina Carson, Helga Davis, Kyle Garvin, Jared Wayne Gladly, Toussaint Jeanlouis, Karma Mayet Johnson, Alexandra Koi, Josette Newsam, Shelley Nicole, Toshi Reagon, Noah Virgile, Evie Schuckman, Be Steadwell

ORCHESTRA
Monique Brooks Roberts, Zach Brown, Bobby Burke, Adam Widoff, Chogyi

PRODUCTION
Choreography – Millicent Johnnie
Scenic – Arnulfo Maldonado
Costumes – Dede M. Ayite
Lighting – Christopher Kuhl
Audio Systems – John Kemp
Art Installation – Abigail Deville
Movement Director – Yasmine Lee
Production Manager – Anthony J. Cerato
Production Stage Manager – Chris De Camillis
Assistant Stage manager – Caroline Pastore
Tour Producer – ArKtype/Thomas O. Kriegsmann
Company Manager/CovidCM – Morgan Johnson
Tour Lighting Director – Devin Cameron
Audio Technician – Alex Dakogiou
Audio Technician – Laura Brauner

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