Before the start of Thursday night’s performance of “Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower,” Toshi Reagon walked to center stage and asked, with a wry smile, “Who bought tickets in 2020?”
The crowd inside the Cutler Majestic Theatre laughed knowingly. It has indeed been a very long wait for the fully staged version of “Parable of the Sower.” But as the subsequent powerhouse performance proved, the wait has been well worth it.
Created by Reagon and her mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon, this operatic adaptation of Butler’s post-apocalyptic 1993 novel is built on a dynamic fusion of blues, gospel, folk, and funk. It surges and swells like a mighty wave as more than a dozen energetic performers act out, and sing out, a story of a young girl’s journey through a (very) near-future dystopia.
“Parable of the Sower” is one of numerous long-postponed productions (Kirsten Greenidge’s “Our Daughters, Like Pillars” at Huntington Theatre Company is another) that are finally seeing the light this spring, two years after the coronavirus darkened stages here and across the country.
Actually, Boston’s wait for “Parable of the Sower” has been even longer than that. The work was presented to local audiences in concert form five years ago, when it enjoyed a sold-out run at the Emerson Paramount Center. Now it’s being presented (only through Sunday, alas) in its fully staged form almost entirely sung-through, with a six-member band playing upstage.
At the center of the action is 15-year-old Lauren Olamina (an alternately pensive and impassioned Marie Tatti), who is possessed of exceptional powers of empathy. The year is 2024 — yes, two years from now — and Lauren is living in a walled, locked community in a suburb of Los Angeles with her father, a strong-willed Baptist minister (Jared Wayne Gladly) and stepmother (Karma Mayet Johnson).
They and their community are sheltering, precariously, from the crumbling, chaotic society outside those walls. Climate change has wreaked havoc, and so has governmental corruption and corporate tyranny. (”How is it that so few people get to be in charge of so many things?” Toshi Reagon asks. An excellent question, that.) The results in “Parable of the Sower” are economic inequality, social injustice, violence, poverty, drugs, illness, homelessness. Human life is held cheap.
Lauren, whom we see constantly writing poems and reflections in her journal, is privately developing her own belief system. She calls it “Earthseed,” based on the notion that “God is Change.” Suiting the action to the word, Lauren is planning a major change of her own: She is secretly preparing to leave the community and travel north.
After tragedies befall her family, Lauren heads out, disguised as a man, in the company of two wounded friends. Their travels, and the dispossessed people they encounter along the way, cannot fail to make one think of Ukrainian refugees. Lauren learns, teaches, and eventually helps to form a new community.
It’s a journey that ranges from despair to jubilation, from repression to liberation. The struggle being waged by Lauren and her comrades is not just to survive but to build something better out of the wreckage. Bleak though the picture often is, “Parable of the Sower” ultimately leaves you with the feeling that perhaps the fate of humanity might be in pretty good hands after all.
OCTAVIA E. BUTLER’S PARABLE OF THE SOWER
Created by Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon. Codirected by Eric Ting and Signe V. Harriday. Music and lyrics by Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon. Presented by ArtsEmerson. At Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre. Through April 24. Tickets $25-$97. 617-824-8400, www.ArtsEmerson.org