Fresh from a 2017 world premiere in Abu Dhabi and a US debut in November, Octavia E. Butlers Parable of the Sower, created by singer, musician, composer, producer and all-round multi- hyphenate Toshi Reagon with her mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon, and based on the American African novelists tenth novel, is a production that is two decades in the making. And it is not a minute too late.
Sparked by a serendipitous gift exchange many Christmases ago between mother and daughter, the music concert they went on to co-create, directed by American theatre director Eric Ting, debuted in a year of extreme weather phenomenon and political polarisation, mirroring the backdrop the novel is set against. It is a fortuitous coincidence, one Toshi Reagon says she is hopeful will inspire audiences round the world to move forward together:
It has been more than two decades since your mum and you gave each other the same novel that inspired this work. What have been both high and low points of this journey?
The journey has been long but every step mattered and got us to where we are (now). The people who are presenting the piece to their audiences are wanting to have a good conversation about situations that humans are facing worldwide, through the voice of a young person inside an intimate community. I find that we are right on time for the current state of the world.
The hard part is, building such a big production takes a lot of work, but we have a great team of actors, singers, musicians, designers and a great production crew. Everyone takes this work personally. It is a good feeling.
Parable of the Sower seems sadly current in its themes of environmental destruction, water shortages, and social and political upheavals. Do you see it as a cautionary tale or is there a bright note to it?
Of course! The Parable story is one where you believe in yourself and what you see. You stop living in a state of denial. You look around you and inside you at what you have your voice, your skills, your community and you move to where you need to be to shape a world different from the one you are in.
Each human has an opportunity to shift out of the destructive path humanity has placed all living, breathing things on. There are revolutions (taking place) all over the planet as humans fight to save the environment, to end injustice and oppression, gender inequality, enslavement... Parable speaks to citizens of communities and offers a path of moving and working together. That is a big bright spot to me. We sing the whole thing because music occupies the body in a very specific way and often holds us through hard journeys.
You collaborated with your mother on this production. How is your experience working with her artistically; how do you both inspire each other?
We have always been doing this. I don't have a lot of words to describe this. It is one of the reasons I was born. One of the biggest joys of my life is working with my mother.
Your mum is an icon she is a musician, scholar and social activist. Have you ever felt that you had big shoes to fill, or that you had to come out of her shadow?
My mother raised me to be Toshi, (to be) myself. I only need to wear my own shoes. She has never cast a shadow over me. We have two separate distinct paths that work seamlessly together and we have never required that the other change who they are in order that we work together. She retired a few years ago and put Parable and the rest of our work in my hands. That is the greatest honour. I now have a career of over 30 years (and still) on its way. I have my own body of work that is different from my mom. I feel that I have honoured the path we each created on our own, and the one we have created together.
The opera is a synthesis of wide range of music styles drawing from African American music. Do you worry it may not be particularly familiar to Asian audiences?
Blues, jazz, rock, funk, soul, spirituals, disco, hip-hop, folk, gospel, rhythm and blues, all these are Black American music genres that are heard everywhere on the planet, and are collaborative with the different music styles and languages from everywhere. People love music and you can't stop their ears and hearts from enjoying it no matter where it comes from.