Toshi Reagon & Big Lovely turn Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” into a musical journey

            The night of September 3rd was one to remember for a lifetime. NYUAD’s Art Center was hosting its grand opening with none other than Toshi Reagon: singer, composer, musician, and leader of her very own ensemble, “Toshi Reagon & Big Lovely”. They would perform a concert version of Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower. Five musicians took their places on a stage, grabbed their instruments and played…. Nothing. Well, let’s just say that silence filled the air for a good few minutes (silence is not necessarily ‘nothing’ if it is an intended part of the performance, and the question of whether it was intended is another argument in itself). When the musicians finally did start playing, the sound of the violin, cello and guitars consumed the space of the blackbox, eliminating the silence with the sudden beginning of the music. After an opening by the band, Toshi Reagon enters, gives a short introduction and then, as if like a calling, cast members who had dispersed themselves along the aisles of the audience seats emerge, some enter from the doors. This is where the magic begins.

            As soon as the twelve individuals, Toshi being the thirteenth, started making their way to the stage, I knew I should have held on to my seat because I was about to be blown away. Their voices in unison, but each voice finding a way to be heard among this collective without overpowering the others, made my jaw drop (of course till I realized I should regain my composure, though this wasn’t likely till some time had passed). I was mesmerized, enchanted and completely taken aback by the sheer dynamic nature, clarity and range of their voices. Toshi and her ensemble took an audience on a journey of survival. The opening song, “What You Gon Do” was the perfect way to present, in the most literal sense, a question to the audience; it gave the opportunity for the audience to imagine and connect, and really ask themselves what they would do with no water, food, and no one to rely on. Yet the show is directed in such a way that it invokes a sense of individuality concerning one’s own needs, and a sense of communalism in the shared experience. From the songs that express basic needs, there is a shift towards human connection with songs like “I Hugged Her Then” and “Embrace Diversity”. I’m not saying the sense of being a singular individual and then being a part of a community are ideas that are separated in Reagon’s performance. They are never separated from each other and this primarily has to do with the form of Reagon’s performance. The ensemble sings together, and supports one another even when there is a solo performance. They don’t just sing with their voices, but they sing with their whole bodies. The semi-circle form the cast was seated in allowed for that sense of unity to be conveyed, but it also felt like the audience was a part of the whole experience. The circle was not closed (hence, semi-circle) and so it allowed the audience to be a part of that completion of the collective; to be a part of a tribe, as Toshi introduces the group to be.

            In Marvin Carlson’s paper discussing theatrical performance and the relationship between an original text and kinds of work that are produced afterwards, he brings forth the concept of supplement. He defines supplement to be “a surplus, a plenitude enriching another plenitude.” He goes on to say that under the concept of a supplement, the original text and the performances that emerge out of them, neither the text nor the performance are inferior to each other. They are dependent on one another (which makes sense since a performance of a novel, cannot emerge if that novel was never written). More profoundly, it is as though the texts, and their different forms such as the form of a novel and concert, are having a conversation with each other. Butler’s novel passes through moments that the Reagon’s concert delves into, whilst the songs that the ensemble sing emerge out of Lauren’s narrative and the poems she writes on a religion she’s developed, “Earthseed”. Reagon’s ensemble took the key elements of Lauren, the protagonist’s experience, and presented them in a way that really made one stop, think, and listen. The repetition of the lyrics conveyed a sense of not only understanding the chaos around one’s world, but accepting it and embracing it in order to stand together and create something new out of it. Butler’s book, with its imagery and even often times poetic narrative, add detail to the world the novel takes place in that isn’t conveyed by the ensemble. However, this by no means dictates that the concert is inferior to the original text. It in fact enriches Butler’s Parable of the Sower not by tampering with the original text, but in reinterpreting and translating it through a medium that is more communal (a concert) as opposed to personal and singular (a novel).

Works Cited:
Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. New York: Grand Central, 2000. Print.

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