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Where interdisciplinary projects by artists often are promoted intensely, Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon's cross-genre folk opera adaptation of Octavia Butler's The Parable of the Sower was not.
Carolina Performing Arts' advertisements of the event showed and spoke of little to nothing regarding what the audience was to expect. The red-washed photograph of a clump of people dressed in ragged clothing suggested a pivotal confrontation scene in an escape story. Their stares displayed a defiance against something bigger than they were, while accepting whatever fate would occur should they lose.
The treatment of Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower by artist Toshi Reagon and collaborator Bernice Johnson Reagon explores this communal group, a family, being defiant against the powers that be. Toshi Reagon greeted the Carolina Performing Arts crowd at Memorial Hall on Thursday night with a message that the evening was about the family we have, and once it is taken away from us, the family we create with others who help us along the way.
Toshi Reagon was our guide, along with her powerhouse band and two supporting singers (the stirring and stratospheric voices of Helga Davis and Carla Duren), through Butler's difficult yet timely story that follows Lauren Olamina at a crossroads in her life and her planet's.
The setting is somewhere in the not-too-distant future. We meet Olamina when she is 15, living in a confined community. The group has been brought together and kept alive by her father's vision of hope and a better life, despite not knowing the world outside of their gate is crumbling around them. Olamina's father believes that God is bringing them together to create hope for a better tomorrow, whereas Lauren begins to doubt that God is not a savior of change, He is change. She prepares to leave the community to preach her own religion, Earthseed, in which "all that you touch you change / all that you change, changes you." However, before she can leave, the walls crumble from a tremor, and the community is forced out into the decrepit world, family-less. Before long, and with the help of Lauren's gospel, they form a communal family that allows them to remain hopeful, despite the human race's ultimate end.
The evening was marked by a sophisticated, riveting musical score which bore resemblance to oral history roots where stories and mythology were told only through song with little to no dialogue. Reagon's score can be labeled a "folk opera," but even that label does not cover the immense range of voices, styles, and musical sophistication that the evening possessed. At times, the evening diverted its narrative to explore the characters' inner beliefs about hope and community, shared by its characters and by the audience watching. Reagon united the crowd with a song during a pause between the evening's acts. "Don't go all theatre on me," Reagon instructed the audience early in the evening, urging the audience to engage in the piece directly, rather than as a spectator.
The urgency of the score and its importance to the audience was made clear through the familiarity of the gospel-inspired songs in Part I and the internal ballads in Part II. The songs did not drive the narrative forward with plot so much as the characters' desires to understand their place in the world and their connection to those around them. Eric Ting's superbly balanced direction allowed space for individual voices to explore the complex emotions Reagon's songs embody, and did so with clarity and honesty rarely seen on stage.
Arnulfo Maldonado's sparse set resembles the gated community in the first part — shown by a hanging, semi-circle scrim — and the desolate wasteland of the planet in the second part — signified by a hanging heap of aluminum foil and splattered paintings. The conservative set enhanced the experience by never confining the action to a specific plane, keeping the action and emotions immediate to the audience. Accompanied by Christopher Kuhl's imaginative lighting and John Kemp's apocalyptic soundscape, the production values added an intense edge to the evening that unsettled most in the audience.
Reagon's Parable is an achievement in modern musical experience. The overwhelming emotions that run through the evening will be hard to shake the morning after. And the score, destined to go down as one of the most innovative cross-genre presentations out there, is a stirring tribute to the unending power of empathy and community.
*Author's Note: During the Thursday evening production in Part 1, an audience member suffered a medical emergency and was taken by EMS and Firemen from the hall to a hospital. Our thoughts and prayers are with this woman's family.