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The Body and The Parable Opera


For several days before the Parable of the Sower Opera, I get flashes of anticipation.

I don’t know what to expect, and I do. I know Toshi Reagon is a genius, born of the genius Bernice Johnson Reagon, and that the two of them pulled this Opera out of their dreams because they live in music. They got permission from the god Octavia Butler herself, and then they gathered and wrote music that exalts blackness.

A few years ago, I sat in a black box theater in Philly and heard early versions of some of the songs, with the singers sitting in a half circle. I remember the experience in my face, how quickly tears came, the way I was trying to instantly sing along to the songs as I heard them the first time. I remembered and I couldn’t wait to get back to the world where those songs were being sung.

I picked out an outfit that felt good to me – a shirt with Octavia’s face on it so she was on my heart. A massive tulle skirt as if I was going to a ball. Functional snow boots. Always ready to run these days.

I asked a friend to hold a seat for me, even though I was arriving in plenty of time before the theater opened, but still.

Pulling up, I felt the nerves of a first date, heightened by the sort of energy that precedes a declaration of love. The theater, Joe’s Pub, was full of beautiful fly people. Meshell Ndegeocello, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Manju Ranjendran, and Octavia’s family and agent were all in the audience. I kept swiveling around, trying to see every single face.

And then the strings started, warming up and tone setting. My friend Juliette was playing her violin, and my heart was pounding. Shay Smalls, who plays Lauren Olamina, came out and sat on a bench with a notebook, building the anticipation. Trying to write about this my tense is all over the place because it was a nonlinear wave of feeling, touching things in the present moment, reverberating in every direction.

So, we are in the hush and caught breath of people awaiting miracles. Toshi’s voice starts the show, but it isn’t as performer…she comes out and says hello to us as comrades, thanks us. Thanks us. The graciousness of this – we are sitting in gratitude and so is she.

Then the songs begin, the show begins.

I cannot capture it. I set out to write this knowing that limitation on the front end. But I can say that my body was taking a journey with the bodies on the stage. I fell for them and with them, feeling the tender ferocity of Lauren, who is young on stage in a way I sometimes forget in my reading, wanting her to be less child, less emotionally vulnerable for the death that comes.

Grief is elongated in the Opera, slow, like in real life. There is a grief song so spare and tender it feels like it is breaking Lauren to sing it, and I am aware of how much I need the broken beautiful and beautiful broken these days.

There are songs for every feeling. There are songs for stress with your parents when there is a difference of values. There are songs for losing your parents, losing your home and everything familiar. There are songs for feeling all alone, and songs for feeling like a part of something larger than yourself. There are songs for heartbreak and new love, songs for old love and songs for the journey, the journey that doesn’t end.

With each song, my body is opening, shivering, leaning in, pulsing, feeling more and more alive. Through these songs, through the storytelling that both holds no punches and attends to care, I find myself weeping, laughing, weeping. I am sitting there, surrounded by people who are also feeling the weight of the story, and the weight of our futures. And somehow I can feel how I am together with all of these people, and, simultaneously, alone with destiny. It is daunting to feel all the unknown and to feel a call to shape the unknown, to shape a survival. But this is what I feel, in my body, at the Parable of the Sower Opera.

And perhaps this is something specific to Toshi Reagon. Toshi invites us to feel the full range of what is, right now. She demands it. We need artists to do this for us, to give us an experience of feeling embodied in what is. To feel the gaping chasm of the future and our tiny internal fires. There is the terror of sharing the planet with so many haters. There is the incredible beauty of connection, which is small and can be all-encompassing. There is the vibration of these songs, echoing blackness throughout time, echoing beyond our fears, feeling familiar and new and strange and home.

Thank god for this Opera, thank god for Toshi.


adrienne maree brown is author of Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds and the co-editor of Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction from Social Justice Movements. She is a writer, social justice facilitator, pleasure activist, healer and doula living in Detroit.

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