In 1993, Octavia E. Butler crafted a not-so-distant world in “Parable of the Sower,” where a young girl, faced with the realities of global climate disaster and heavy social inequality, realized an inevitable truth about existence: “The only lasting truth is change.” What people do with that truth, however, is much more powerful in its astoundingly emotional, layered operatic form, as adapted by Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon.
With hope at its core, “The Parable of the Sower” was welcomed by Cal Performances May 5-6 in Zellerbach Hall. As guests buzz about and find their seats, 15-year-old Lauren Olamina (Marie Tatti Aqeel) sits on the darkened stage, ponderously scribbling in a notebook. Residing in a walled church community in post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, Lauren awaits her father’s sermon while pyromaniac drug addicts and the poor and hungry persist outside their walls.
Lauren continues to write as two women (Abby Dobson, Shelley Nicole) begin to soulfully hum, before being joined by Toshi Reagon in all black. The three fade to an elevated platform in the background of the main stage, and Reagon, guitar in hand, sets the scene and begins to sing us a story.
Narratively, the opera is clear enough for those unfamiliar with Butler’s works to understand its flow. Over time, Butler’s novels “Parable of the Sower” and “Parable of the Talents” have been crystallized as Afrofuturist hallmarks of literature, even as the events they describe draw closer to our own reality. If anything, the musical performance is impactful with or without that context due to the stunningly diverse set of musical styles that set the stage for the opera’s many moods and scenes.
After Lauren’s family, running through the floor of Zellerbach, takes the stage, Aqeel narrates the thoughts she has been putting to paper — a letter to her father (Neil Dawson), a Baptist pastor. Although they both recognize that God prevails, they have diverging thoughts on what that means for how people should interact with the world around them.
Namely, in Lauren’s notebook she has been drafting a new religion driven by her acute sense of empathy for the plights around her. Her scribblings culminate in Earthseed, wherein God is change and people must accept change in order to sustain themselves. But her ballad is transitioned into an abrupt tonal shift when Dobson, Nicole and Reagon, in an a capella staccato, sing like news reporters. They describe the chaotic realities of life on July 21, 2024 — culminating in the thought that if you have a wall, you should stand behind it to protect yourself.
The first half of the opera takes place in Lauren’s walled community, where rising tensions and egos within her church’s community resist her claims that they must leave to avoid danger. Within their fervent denialism, however, is a strong hope in God spearheaded by Lauren’s reverend father. The church asks what they are going to do as their grip on the world loosens, yet Dawson’s deep, smooth voice beckons toward faith as Lauren, disengaged, writes in her notebook.
The second half arrives when a drug-fueled attack breaches the community’s walls, leaving only Lauren and two other survivors. Lauren continues to act first with kindness, drawing a group together to travel northward while she preaches Earthseed. Outside, fires spark and rage, and the people beg for rain and violently distrust those around them.
This vivaciously contemporary performance, conducted by 14 performers and a five-piece orchestra, is buoyed by an evenly talented cast of vocalists. Each performer is given their moment to showcase their talents and the characters they embody, named or unnamed. Each of their existences in Butler’s post-apocalyptic world is important and deserves notice, especially when presented in powerful congregational melodies, soft lamenting ballads and folksy yearnings.
The set dramatically evolves in appearance and tone; the orderly set and even white lighting are disrupted by dramatic flashes of red and orange, backlit by three abstract paintings of fire that transition into blues and purples as Lauren and her followers escape peril.
In this way, Butler’s original themes of hope and community in a dangerous world are translated into fiery melodies and assured anthems.