Science fiction, black music meet in Toshi Reagon’s opera-in-progress
In the parable of the sower in the Gospels, Jesus tells his followers about different outcomes from scattering seeds. Some are cast to the side and eaten by birds, some are planted in rocky soil or among thorns and fail to grow, but the seeds sown on “good ground” will take root and provide a bounty.
Science-fiction author Octavia E. Butler called back to that allegory about the word of God with her 1993 book “Parable of the Sower,” about a young woman in an apocalyptic future America who wanders a drought-stricken landscape, planting the seeds of a new religion fueled by empathy.
Now Butler’s book is adapted into an opera that synthesizes a wide range of musical styles culled from its creators’ deep reservoir of knowledge about black music in America.
“We definitely have, inside of this story, music that comes out of the spirituals, music that comes out of gospel, blues, rock, electronica,” says Toshi Reagon, who wrote the songs and libretto with her mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock and original member of the Freedom Singers. (Toshi’s late father, Cordell Reagon, also a singer and political activist, founded the latter group.)
Presented by ArtsEmerson Thursday through Sunday at the Paramount Center, “Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower” will be performed by an ensemble including Toshi (who sings and plays guitar), a dozen other singers, and five other musicians.
As a successful black woman, Butler stood out on multiple fronts in the world of science fiction, a field that can be very male and very white. She won some of the most prestigious awards for science fiction (two Hugos and a Nebula) and was the first writer of that genre to be honored with a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” Butler died in 2006.
“Parable” begins in 2025. Its protagonist is Lauren Olamina, an 18-year-old woman who flees her walled community in California when it is overrun by the lawless gangs who exert much control in a society riven by global climate change, drought, extreme wealth disparities, and violence directed at ethnic minorities. Lauren has a condition in which she physically feels any pain that she witnesses another person experiencing. She accumulates followers as she heads north and develops a new religion.
When she first read the novel in the 1990s, Toshi Reagon says, its cataclysmic scenarios seemed far away. Now, less so.
“Even though I know humans can be systemically despicable — because I’m black and I live in America, and there were no black people here before slavery, when I read the book now I’m just a little bit in a state of shock that I’ve actually gotten to live the conditions that happened in the book.”
Butler’s book is “really kind of a map of our possibilities,” Reagon adds. “I thought it was important to put this story out because I think theater and music are great ways to communicate difficult things and to inspire people to actually look at them and to face them.”
Reagon has recorded albums since 1990, but much of her recent attention has gone toward interdisciplinary works; she’s written a series of pieces for dance companies, including “The Blues Project” with Dorrance Dance, which she performed in San Francisco last week. Toshi and Bernice Johnson Reagon have also collaborated with Robert Wilson on two operas.
“Parable” will make its debut as a fully staged piece in the fall; the concert version at the Paramount offers the chance for additional fine-tuning to the score.
“It was just an electric sense of community that she was able to create in those songs,” P. Carl, ArtsEmerson co-artistic director, says of the work in progress. “I think the thing that makes the book great is the idea of this protagonist creating a new religion based on our capacity to change. I feel like that idea is so deep and profound for the world we’re currently living in. Can we change? Can we live in a world of changing demographics, expanding notions of identity, and expanding notions of our connection to each other?”
With Sweet Honey in the Rock, Reagon mère (who is now retired) explored music that runs deeper than 20th-century gospel, reaching to older spirituals and African-American cultural inheritance. Her daughter wants “Parable” to tap into the profound social role historically played by music.
“So much of the music that black people created, coming through the system of slavery, has so many purposes. What our people did is create a way of existing so that we could live and so that we could give each other information and so that we weren’t alone,” she says. “Inside of every kind of music, what is always important for me is if I hear it speaking to me from that place. So whatever anybody calls it, whether it’s work songs or blues or disco, that’s what I look for.”
Octavia E. Butler’s PARABLE OF THE SOWER
Presented by ArtsEmerson. At: Paramount Center Robert J. Orchard Stage, Thursday through Sunday. Tickets: $75-$90, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org