Toshi Reagon, the genre-busting folk-gospel-rock musician, first encountered Octavia Butler’s Afro-futuristic “Parable of the Sower” in the late 1990s. She was shocked by the novel’s prescience.
“When I read it I thought, ‘How could this possibly happen?’ ” Toshi recalled.
Set in 2024, the dystopian science fiction novel (published in 1993) warns of greed, extreme inequality, social collapse and climate change. As the New Yorker magazine noted, the book’s sequel, 1998’s “Parable of the Talents,” features a politician who (incredibly) touts his mission to “Make America great again.” The protagonist of both books — introduced as a 15-year-old black girl named Lauren Oya Olamina — possesses what Butler calls “hyperempathy” or the ability to feel pain experienced by others.
Reagon, 55, and her mother, the composer/activist Bernice Johnson Reagon, who achieved folk-hero status for founding Sweet Honey in the Rock, struck upon the idea of adapting the book more than 20 years ago. Although Bernice, 76, later retired and stepped away from the project, Toshi went on to develop the show and tour it around the world. The opera will be performed Friday at the O’Shaughnessy in St. Paul.
Reached by phone at her home in Brooklyn, Reagon discussed “Parable” and its striking prophecies. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Many of the themes from “Parable of the Sower” are still relevant today. What are your thoughts on that?
A: It’s really heartbreaking. There’s actually a line in the book where the daughter is challenging her father about the horrible things that could happen. The father tells her to be quiet and tells her that no one can predict the future. She argues that you can if you can get over your fears. Octavia really did a great job in predicting what was going to happen next.
Q: How would you explain your project to readers who haven’t read the novel?
A: Even if you haven’t read the book, you will understand the story. There are two conflicts that establish themselves right away. One of the conflicts is pretty familiar to all of us. It’s the father, the adult, the parents, thinking that things should happen a certain way. And the kids thinking that’s wrong.
The other conflict is around belief systems. The father is a Baptist minister who comes out of a belief system of black family. [His daughter] creates her own belief system called Earthseed. She thinks that God is change. All that you touch you change. All that you change changes you and the only lasting truth is change. She says it’s inevitable. As she starts to introduce this idea into her community, that’s where all of the trouble starts.
Q: Walk me through the process of creating “Parable of the Sower.”
A: My mom got asked to teach a course for Toni Morrison, who was in charge of the Princeton Atelier. It’s basically a semesterlong workshop where an artist comes on campus and offers a class for a semester. Professor Morrison asked her to do something with singing and Black American songs. My mom couldn’t do it because she was touring, but she said she’d split it with me. So she did half the classes and I did the other half.
We needed a text so my mom chose “Parable of the Sower.” We created an arc of music that went over the conditions of the book. After we did that, we were like, “Wow, we could really sing this book if we get the rights.” It took many years, because my mom is pretty busy. Eventually, we had a workshop with New York City Opera in 2008. But then the New York City Opera started to have a lot of problems and that season got canceled. It took another few years, and my mother by then had retired. She told me to keep working on it if I wanted to, and I was really determined to do it.
Q: Wow, so the process definitely took a while. What was it like working with your mother?
A: It was very normal. She’s a great artist. She thinks I’m a great artist. And we collaborate as artists. It’s not mushy at all. Everybody wants to be like “Aww.” And I’m like “No, it’s not like that.”
Q: Tell me about transforming the novel for the stage.
A: When we first did the workshops, it was a concert. We didn’t focus on as many characters, either. We mainly focused on Lauren Olamina, the 15-year-old girl, her father and her brother.
What I really wanted to do was tell more narrative of the book. And so after we got support and commissions, we went and dug in. We looked in the book and pulled the characters we thought would work. There’s a lot of them, and we can’t obviously do it with the size of our cast. But for America, our cast feels very big, especially for an independently produced work like this. If we were like “Hamilton,” or another big Broadway production that goes on tour, it’d be different. But it’s me and some cool folks banding together and collaborating.
Q: After the show is over, what message do you hope sticks with people?
A: It is an evening of theater. It’s an evening of music, storytelling. I want that to be enjoyable. We want to connect people to this incredible world.
In a little while, Octavia Butler will be blowing up. There’s a couple of television shows in the works based on her books. But we’re still the first people that did something off of the pages of her books. You don’t have to wait five to six years for someone to give you half a million dollars to make your theatrical dream come true. I think if I waited and kept developing in that way, this piece wouldn’t be seeing the light of day until 2022. And that felt way too late to be having a conversation about stuff that happens in 2024.
Alex Smith is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.