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Toshi Reagon on the Legacy of Octavia Butler and Her New Opera

“Octavia is important because she looked at the future, and she put black people in it.”

Photo by Paul Marotta

Ten years ago, Toshi Reagon and her mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon, came together to turn Octavia Butler’s 1993 science-fiction novel Parable of the Sower into an opera. The story, which explores feminism, climate change, classism, and spirituality, would come to life with their blend of African American folk music, rock ’n’ roll, soul, funk, and blues. Now, Toshi, her director Eric Tang, and their 30-person cast and crew are finally taking the opera to the stage with the help of the Public Theater and a Kickstarter campaign that raised over $50,000. And, like Butler’s prolific novel, her opera feels more timely than ever.

Toshi was introduced to Butler, music, and activism through her mother, a composer, singer, and civil-rights activist who was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Freedom Singers. Like the Parable opera, Toshi as a stage performer and musician is known for blending genres too, specifically R&B, soul, and rock. She dropped out of college after Lenny Kravitz asked her to open for him on his first world tour and hasn’t stopped performing since, frequently doing live shows and tours with her band Big Lovely.

When Toshi was in her early twenties, her mother shared some of her Octavia Butler books with her. Toshi instantly became a fan. Though it was Parable of the Sower that was the hardest for her to read: “I read like two pages, and I was like, I’m not reading the rest of this book. I could just tell it was different. There’s not going to be any aliens in this book, and there’s not going to be any time travel. It just felt really serious.”

The dystopian novel takes place in the 2020s and centers on the downfall of a community due to a drastic climate and economic changes. Poor people are separated from the working and middle classes by a wall of gated communities. There’s a presidential candidate, Christopher Donner, who promises to “make america great” by destroying government programs. In the aftermath of chaos (which includes forcing everyone to live among one another and get rid of the walls), the protagonist, a fifteen-year-old black girl named Lauren Oya Olamina, born with the ability to feel the pain of others (hyperempathy), sets out to create her own belief system and get free.

“The condition that we end up in in 2024 is a result of us not being able to embrace the different kinds of people that we actually live with,” says Toshi over the phone. She’s speaking about Butler’s book, but it sounds eerily familiar to the state of the world today.

For Lenny Letter, I talked with Toshi Reagon about the legacy of Octavia Butler and the role of an artist.

Photo by Kevin Yatarola

Tahirah Hairston: Parable of the Sower: the Opera had been in the works for ten years. Why did you decide to release and start touring it now?

Toshi Reagon: We had an opportunity in 2008 to work with New York City Opera, with the late Gerard Mortier, when he was coming in to be artistic director. That institution ran into trouble, so that whole season got pretty much wiped out. It took until 2015 for me to develop the relationships that would allow me to offer this work again. Two women who work at the Public — Shanta Thake, who is the artistic director of Joe's Pub, and May Yen Wung, who worked at the Under the Radar Festival — heard me do three songs from the opera. When they heard those three songs, they were like, “We should try and present this, the whole thing.” We did the Kickstarter because it’s so expensive. I insisted on it happening in 2017, because if we had taken the normal trajectory for a work this size, it would be like four or five years. It would be like in 2020, 2021, 2022. And this opera takes place in 2024.

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TH: We’re inching closer to the actual year.

TR: The issues are creeping up. One of the things that we learned from Octavia Butler’s text, and especially in the Parable of the Talents [the sequel to Parable of the Sower] , is that it’s our time that actually has the opportunity to not have things develop into these horrific situations, and it is up to us citizens of the world to force the issue. It’s up to us to use our good sense, to not buy into all these systemic plans for a horrific way of life for most of the people on the planet. It’s urgent.

TH: In an interview with the New York Times, you say you didn’t think Octavia Butler predicted Trump (as many have said, alluding to the “make america great” line from the book), but you said she understood who mankind was and who we would become. What do you think it was that she understood about humankind that she was able to write something that still resonates in 2018?

TR: I think it’s sexy for people to say she predicted Trump because he’s so horrible, and she said the slogan, but she didn’t think it was hard to predict things. It’s not like she had to look into some pool of water and see the reflection of the future. She really saw that we would allow it to happen. There can be a horrible person that wants to be president, but you don’t have to elect him. You could throw your body in the way to say no, and she knew we wouldn’t do it.

TH: Some of your music overall has been about women and the political state of the world. Do you think it’s the role of an artist to be political?

TR: The thing I want more than this idea of “Does the artist have to be this way?” is “Do we as citizens of the world have a responsibility to each other and to the planet, and is that responsibility based on living and life?” Even though we know that we are not going to exist for eternity, we honor and respect our mortality enough to think about a future beyond ourselves. That to me is why Octavia is important, because she looked at the future, and she looked at time, and she put black people in it, and she put all these different kinds of people in it, and then she put all these different kinds of conditions, which is to say when you think about the future, you will see us there, and we will exist. When you consider yourself a citizen of the world, what is your job? What is each of our jobs to be a citizen of the world and a caretaker of the planet? I think I’m interested in that, and that’s inclusive of artists. It’s inclusive of everybody.

Tahirah Hairston is an associate editor at Lenny Letter.