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Toshi Reagon brings political opera to life at Krannert Center

Singer, composer and producer Toshi Reagon

URBANA – Octavia Butler’s science fiction novel, Parable of the Sower, comes to The Krannert Center For the Performing Arts this weekend. Singer, composer, and producer Toshi Reagon, as well as her mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon, created an opera from Butler’s work. Click here for a link to the show’s information at Krannert.

Illinois Public Media’s Kimberlie Kranich chatted with Reagon about what audiences can expect from this musical work of political theater.

Kranich: For those unfamiliar with Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, what’s important to know about those stories?

Reagon: It’s important to know that Octavia, like probably researched and wrote these stories, like in the late 80s. Parable was published in 1993. So, we’re in the 30th anniversary of the book. And if you think about somebody, just collecting data, and being creative about what could happen in 30 years, and then being just spot on, accurate. She really, really like understood humans and our reactions to certain circumstances, our level for violence, our level for greed, and our you know, unwillingness to stop things that we know are going to be detrimental to our existence.

Kranich: And part of the opera that you made, which is putting the book to music with your mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon is about activating ourselves in this current time, can you talk a little bit about that?

Reagon: Sure. You know, she didn’t just leave us with our conditions, she, you know, is like, but we can do things we can activate differently, we can look at the planet. And we can see the way other species on the planet create, to survive and to live and to flourish. She also really thought we should be aware that we live in a universe, that we’re not the only things that exist the only beings that exist, and to have a relationship with that.

Kranich: And do you find that the story is more doom and gloom? Or is it more about hope?

Reagon: I mean, you know, there’s always doom and gloom, and there’s always hope they exist, that they exist together. So, when you know, when you really read the story, or when you wake up in the morning, like, you know, you can see the things that are happening that aren’t good. You know, you also hopefully, have love in your life, you also hopefully have things you believe in, and that you would work really hard for. And you see these characters that, you know, first, the first part of the book is like a family that you know, and that you’re familiar with, and everything. And the second half of the book is like the family you find along the way.

Music plays during the interview

Kranich: There’s a new world coming, everything going to be turning over. Where are you going to be standing when it comes? Did you write that?

Reagon: No. Bernice Johnson Reagon wrote that in the 70s. And I stole it from my mom. So, but she wrote it, like, I feel like it really is like around some of the epic things that were happening then. And so, she has in her original lyrics, which you can, you know, see that song I think is on YouTube. And like, you know, our go buy it, but you can hear she’s talking about the Vietnam War. And she’s talking about how there’s uprisings all over the planet. Because people are like, No, we’re not going to stand for this. So, I thought it was perfect to use for the conditions in the Parable book.

Kranich: You know, you talked about how Lauren you see Lauren’s family in the book and in the opera, and then she loses that, and she has to find family along the way. Is that what you would say is the hope?

Reagon: I mean, it’s so complex, you know, it’s not so much that, you know, you’re gonna find family, like, that’s not what you’re doing. Right. So by the time you’re in a place where you’re, you know, walking up a highway with like, two people, you know, they’re not even your good friends, you’re like, you’re trying to establish a ground, like, you’re so the thing is, is like, I won’t kill you, I won’t steal from you, and I want your back. Like, these are like, the three things to agree on. And, and that’s what they have. So, whether or not like they become family, or whether or not they, you know, they can meet that is, is really like up to each individual person. It’s not easy, like, I think people, you know, are like, and then we did this, and we won and it’s like she’s like no, the roots of the violence of this country. And, and, and people who get into leadership positions, usually in government, or she talks a lot about independent people, like, you know, multinational corporations, like we’re all fighting that now, too. It’s that too few people have the have too much currency to make decisions for everyone. And if we’re offered a little bit of convenience, we fall into it. Maybe you’ll get some family out of that. Maybe you won’t, like, at some point, you know, but you will be alive, you will be alone, you’ll be alive, and you won’t be killing people, and you won’t be destructive. And that is like the place we all need to go. And you’ll be dropping some of these permissions… permission to hurt, permission to violate, permission to be racist, permission to be misogynist, permission to be homophobic, transphobic, permission to harm the earth. permission to harm other species of the earth, you will let go of that.

Kranich: Is the audience part of this production? In some kind of way?

Reagon: Absolutely, we, we just like, Hi, we’re all in a room together. Anything can happen!

Kranich: Finally, what would you like audiences to come away with after they see the performance?

Reagon: I mean, I don’t be getting in people’s business about what they should do. I you know, it’s, I think it’s a beautiful telling of a really complex story. It’s an opera not a musical. And so like, a lot of times people really, you know, don’t understand we just we sing, sing, sing, sing, you know, we don’t stop, and the characters start, like, you know, doing dialogue and things like that. But, you know, we think it’s really powerful. It also like the book has, like, you know, I have that it has like strong narrative, where you can kind of figure out and then the second half of it, they’re like out in the wilderness and you kind of seen shapes of people but not sure where you are, and then they grow to a community. So, we follow along those lines.

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