Toshi Reagon brings adaptation of Parable of the Sower to NYU Abu Dhabi
If Toshi Reagon didn’t exist, it would be difficult to imagine her. A multitalented singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer, Reagon has pursued a genre-defying career that spans rock, the blues, folk, punk and even opera.
Reagon’s versatility and place in contemporary American music should come as no surprise. The daughter of Cordell Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon, co-founders of the Civil Rights era five-piece Freedom Singers, whose campaigning songs were influenced by gospel music, traditional spirituals, rhythm and blues and soul, Toshi was named after the wife of her godfather – the legendary American folk singer, songwriter and activist Pete Seeger.
As well as leading her own band, BIGLovely, since 1996, Reagon opened for Lenny Kravitz on his inaugural world tour and has worked with international artists such as Ani DiFranco and Elvis Costello, but it is a collaboration with her mother that has brought the 51-year-old to Abu Dhabi for the first time.
The opening performance of the Arts Center at New York University Abu Dhabi’s 2015-2016 season, Octavia E Butler’s Parable of the Sower: The Concert Version will receive its UAE premiere on Wednesday night.
Reagon’s latest work is an operatic adaptation of Butler’s science-fiction novel which has gathered something of a cult following in North America amongst a generation of readers who appreciate the story’s blend of speculative fiction and social commentary as well as what is ultimately its uplifting message.
“Octavia really understood something about California, but this story could be set in Abu Dhabi, in London, or any country in Africa,” says Reagon.
“It’s about finding your community and finding your way out of trouble and, in some way, rising above what you know to do something truly extraordinary in order to win.”
Published in 1993 and set in 2024, Parable of the Sower follows the fortunes of a young, black woman, Lauren Olamina, who lives in a dystopian southern California of the near future that is beset by water shortages, environmental catastrophe and political and social collapse.
The daughter of a minister, Lauren’s family are killed in a violent attack and she suffers from a condition called hyperempathy, which causes her to feel and share the pain of the living beings she encounters. When she escapes in search of a better life, Lauren develops a new religion, Earthseed, in which the central tenet is the need to be able to adapt to a world defined by unavoidable and catastrophic change.
For Reagon, part of the power of Butler’s story stems from the fact that it contains a message of hope, which she believes is relevant to everybody, regardless of their nationality, race or creed.
“I was very touched by the book even though it was very scary, because it shows a way to move through the world and to create change and hopefulness and to move against the ideas that have become destructive in the first place,” says Reagon. “That makes it a very beautiful story, and there is nobody on the planet who will not recognise what we’re talking about. It’s a very human story.”
Although she was already a fan of Butler’s work, Reagon only discovered Parable of the Sower when she and her mother bought it for each other, by coincidence, as a Christmas gift.
“It’s science fiction but, as always in Butler’s books, she is telling you where you are right here and now, even though she might be saying something very expansive and abstract. That’s why I found it terrifying, because I could see that it was happening. I thought ‘Oh my god, we are actually going to do this!’”
It wasn’t until 1997, however, that Reagon and her mother really engaged with the text as part of an interdisciplinary, semester-long course they were both invited to teach at Princeton University.
“We took a few of the passages from the book and created some music out of those, but we also taught traditional and contemporary African-American music that we thought touched on its themes. That’s how we started our musical collaboration, but it was another 10 years before we started to take the work into the studio, and it took another eight years to get it to where it is now.”
Despite its long gestation and performances earlier this year as part of the Under the Radar Festival in Manhattan, Reagon still describes the performance as a work-in-progress.
“Along the way, we hope to try out certain ideas, teach ourselves more about the piece and at the same time to produce the infrastructure for the presentation, but it will probably be 2017 before it will be in its full-staging.
“Over the years we’ve been able to shape the opera into something we think is pretty good and what you’ll see at NYU Abu Dhabi is a concert version of a selection of the songs.”
Reagon’s fourth opera has not only provided her with the opportunity to work with her mother, a woman she describes as an “awesome musician and an awesome composer”, but also to work with material produced by an important author who, like her, transcends the boundaries associated with genres.
“For me she’s up there with Toni Morrison as one of the great writers of my lifetime and I think her popularity will only grow as time goes on. I hope for us to be a part of that and that, through the development of the opera, the world comes to know her work.”
• Toshi Reagon’s performance of Octavia E Butler’s Parable of the Sower: The Concert Version at NYU Abu Dhabi’s Arts Center is on Wednesday, September 2, and Thursday, September 3, at 8pm. For more information, visit www.nyuad-artscenter.org.
Nick Leech is a features writer at The National.
Published: August 27, 2015 04:00 AM