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Postapocalyptic Parable Comes Home

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By Anne Pautler

Published Jan 1, 2020 8:00 AM


How a visionary storyteller saw the future.


Composer Toshi Reagon. Photo courtesy of CAP UCLA.

Parable of the Sower, a theatrical event to be presented on March 7 by UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance, is a West Coast premiere — but it’s also a homecoming. A blend of theater and music, the Royce Hall production is based on a pair of novels by the late Octavia E. Butler, a shy African American writer who grew up in Pasadena and took several UCLA Extension courses.

“It is special to actually do it here, to be in the place where she created the story,” says composer Toshi Reagon. A multigenre musician and CAP UCLA artist in residence, Reagon made a pilgrimage to The Huntington Library to see Butler’s handwritten notes and research files. “The residency is an investment, not just in me, but in the work. It’s an investment in supporting Octavia’s stories,” Reagon says.

In 1995, Butler became the first science fiction writer to win a MacArthur Fellowship. She won multiple awards, including two Nebulas and two Hugos. Although the two Parable books were written in the 1990s, their reputation continues to grow: Four different UCLA classes currently use the first, Parable of the Sower, as a text.

One fan is UCLA English lecturer Cailey Hall M.A. ’14, Ph.D. ’19, who chose Sower for English 118E: Literature and Environment. “Not only is Parable of the Sower a prescient work of dystopian fiction that explores the intersections of climate change, income inequality, race, gender and politics, but it is also Californian in focus,” Hall says.

“The novel begins in a suburb outside Los Angeles,” she explains, “and follows the characters on a journey through California.” It is an odyssey that has drawn many along.

Reagon discovered the novel when teaching at Princeton University with her mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon. They were intrigued by the way historic blues songs echoed the novel’s themes — for instance, songs about the Mississippi River flood of 1927. “It made us realize that we could sing the whole book,” she says.

Four years ago, the original concert version focused on just three characters, but when Reagon suggested a narrator, director Eric Ting cast her in the role. Overall, the cast has grown to an ensemble of 20 singers, actors and musicians — many playing more than one character.

Reagon is looking forward to engaging with the audience. “We’re gonna tell this story that a lot of us know, and some of us have never heard.”

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