x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 22 November 2017

Toshi Reagon on how she planted the roots of an opera

Toshi Reagon tells us of her thrill in returning to the capital for the world premiere of her opera Parable of the Sower

Toshi Reagon. Anthony Barboza / Getty Images
Toshi Reagon. Anthony Barboza / Getty Images

When Toshi Reagon first thumbed the pages of Octavia E Butler’s Parable of the Sower, she read a few lines, and promptly put the book back down. For several years. “I read the first page, and said ‘I’m not reading this now’,” she remembers. Fast-forward 24 years, and the American singer-songwriter is preparing to present the world premiere of an opera inspired by the novel, at The Arts Centre at New York University Abu Dhabi, from November 9 to 11.

The book was a present from Reagon’s mother – well, kind of – following its initial release in 1993. Both mother and daughter bought two copies of Butler’s dystopian science-fiction; one for themselves, and a second as a festive gift for the other. Still, the younger Reagon’s pair of books would stay unleafed until four years later, when her mother – the eminent musician and activist Bernice Johnson Reagon – was invited by novelist Toni Morrison to teach an interdisciplinary, semester-­long course at Princeton University.

“My Mum said: ‘I’m only doing it if I can do it with Toshi’,” remembers Reagon, with a characteristic, warm laugh. And when her mother picked Parable of the Sower to be on her eclectic, cherry-picked syllabus, the daughter had no choice but to sit down with the book – and was suitably wowed. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing,’ and shortly afterwards thought, ‘We need to sing this story.’”

Twenty years later, the resulting opera – which also draws from the book’s sequel Parable of the Talents, and is simply titled Octavia E Butler’s Parable of the Sower – will receive its first complete public performances over three nights in Abu Dhabi. “It’s been a long journey,” sighs Reagon, speaking at the tail end of three weeks of rehearsals in New York, and fresh from a preview outing at Harlem’s storied Apollo Theatre.

Theatrically helmed by Obie Award-winning director Eric Ting, and with Reagon serving as musical director and star – as well as co-composer and co-librettist alongside her mother – the resulting piece may be described as an opera, but the experience is set to sit somewhere between an improvised drama and a rock revue; a wanton mix of literary science fiction adaption, inclusive music performance and pointed political polemic.

The Reagon mother/daughter combo have previously teamed up on two operas, the gospel-inspired Flaubert adaptation The Temptation of Saint Anthony, and Zinnias: The Life of Clementine Hunter, a bio-drama of the influential African-American folk artist, both alongside director Robert Wilson.

In the two decades since the family duo began pondering a Parable of the Sower stage adaptation, the calendar has rolled ever closer to 2024, the year in which Butler’s fictional tale begins. Just reading a brief synopsis is enough to appreciate why this novel was not a simple tale to frame in folk-rock songwriting: Butler’s book offers a bleak portrait of a near-future world ravaged by climate change, wealth inequality and racially motivated violence. From the ashes of this collapsed society our protagonist, the 18-year-old Lauren Olamina, flees her gated California community following the murder of her parents by lawless gangs, to walk this scarred land sowing a new belief system dubbed Earthseed. A breezy beach read, this most decidedly is not.

But for Reagon, an award-winning artist with a 35-year performance career behind her, turning the prose into music, “didn’t feel hard at all”. Drawing from African-American musical traditions across the ages, Reagon’s best work seamlessly channels the primal stomp of the blues, urban groove of funk and rural, collective heart of spirituals alike, fed through the prism of a socially conscious folk aesthetic.

As hackneyed as it might sound, it is in the blood of this proud Atlanta offspring, who was born into a family as motivated by music as they were by speaking up for what is right. Reagon’s parents were both members of The Freedom Singers, a protest group which played a pivotal role battling segregation in the early 1960s. Her late father Cordell Hull Reagon was a leader of the Civil Rights Movement, while her 75-year-old mother founded African-American a capella groups The Harambee Singers and the Grammy Award-winning Sweet Honey in the Rock, whom she toured with for three decades before her retirement from the stage in 2004. Then there is the small matter of Reagon’s godfather, genre-defining folk and protest singer Pete Seeger, whose wife not-coincidentally shares the name Toshi. Reagon also once played for the Obamas.

Yet Reagon chose to return to Abu Dhabi as the last stop of her Parable journey – an earlier “in concert” work-in-progress version of the opera was performed at NYUAD 26 months earlier. Since that September 2015 debut – which took place at The Arts Centre’s 150-capacity Black Box space – the “in concert” version has played at just a handful of arts spaces in the United States, slowly evolving and growing in scope with each engagement.

Next week’s grand premiere will see the opera shifted to the 700-capacity The Red Theatre, with additional staging, lighting and choreography, while the score has grown to include even more music than the 23 songs unveiled two years ago. “For people who came last time, there’s a lot of new music – and none gone,” adds Reagon. “We didn’t get rid of anything, we just brought out more of the characters.”

Parable’s cast has expanded from 13 members in the early version to 20 in the opera, including a chorus of 15 musicians and singers who surround Reagon on the stage, seated in an inclusive semi-circle – the invite to the audience is implicit, and many found themselves standing and singing along to the unfamiliar material on the previous Abu Dhabi date.

Because, for all the literary inspiration, Reagon’s music remains at core a communal ritual. Since 1996, she has led the open-hearted rock troupe BIGLovely, which will also make its Abu Dhabi debut a week before the Parable premiere, performing a more relaxed outdoor gig at NYUAD’s East Plaza tomorrow.

Steeped in rock ‘n’ roll heritage, live sets might include foot-stomping standards like Smokestack Lightnin’ and Heartbreak Hotel, alongside Reagon’s bracing original material, littered with charismatic monologues and implorations, with wit and humour to spare.

“I will never sing the same thing twice,” says the 53-year-old. “I will always be improvisational – if you give me a piece of paper and say, ‘We just want you to read this every night at 8pm,’ I will change it every time. I’m the loose cannon in the cast.”

Billed as Toshi Reagon with BIGLovely and Friends, tomorrow’s one-off Abu Dhabi special will feature guest solo slots from four members of Parable’s all-star cast – Tariq Al-Sabir, Morley, Josette Newsam-Marchak and Shayna Small – and marks the band’s first gig since early summer.

This sporadic touring schedule is likely a result of Reagon’s preoccupation with Parable of the Sower.

“This is absolutely one of the biggest things I’ve ever done,” says the singer, who has previously collaborated with banner pop names including Lenny Kravitz and Elvis Costello, and presented work everywhere from the Paris Opera House to New York’s Madison Square Garden.

“We’re really excited to come back to Abu Dhabi and present this work on a world stage,” she says. “It’s a great way to bring a community together, and just say what everybody is thinking – where we are right now, what we’re all going through – but not alone, being with other people.”

Toshi Reagon with BIGLovely and Friends perform at NYUAD’s East Plaza tomorrow at 8pm; the world premiere of Octavia E Butler’s Parable of the Sower takes place on Thursday, November 9, and runs until Saturday, November 11, all 8pm. For tickets, at Dh100 for adults and Dh50 for students/children for all shows, and for more information, visit www.nyuad-artscenter.org

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