Two Minutes' Traffic: Parable of the Sower, Strathmore
Will you still be able to see if I scoot my chair over like this?, I asked the woman sitting next to me. Go right ahead, you're fine--I just want to be able to see Toshi, she replied. I nodded as if I completely understood, but gentle readers, I had no idea. It was shortly before the performance was set to begin, and audience members were still trickling into the cavernous Strathmore music hall, and I had bought a ticket only a few weeks before and was going in entirely sight-unseen. Had I ever read any Octavia Butler, despite a lifetime of being a science fiction nerd? Nope, I had always been waiting for that elusive "right time" that never quite arrives. Did I know anything at all about Toshi Reagon, the charismatic musician who was the driving force behind this entire production? Was my ignorance going to matter?
The short answer: nope.
Toshi Reagon, who created the piece alongside her mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon, has crafted an impressive musical take on Butler's acclaimed novel. Toshi slyly tells the audience during a break in the narrative that the only problem she has with the book is its lack of a folksinger, and the infusion of music into this story of change is a powerful and effective choice. Too many properties on stage are half-baked adaptations of minor Hollywood hits that pin their hopes on name recognition; the Reagons, by contrast, have found new angles on Butler's work through both music and the art of stagecraft in the place of text.
The first half of the evening in particular does an impressive job presenting a clear and streamlined narrative, breaking the performance into two halves centered first around the community we are born into, and then community we create. Although the story becomes less clear in the second half of the evening, the music and performances carry the audience through. Marie Tatti Aqeel’s central performance as Laura Olamina is outstanding, and the musical trio of Toshi Reagon at the center of the stage flanked by Helga Davis and Shelley Nicole (billed as the two Talents) is a vital element to the entire staging. The opera is vibrantly staged by co-directors Eric Ting & Signe V. Harriday, and brought to Strathmore in partnership with Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.
Parable of the Sower is a powerful and riveting work of music, art, and theatre, and its primary drawback is that it's only here in the DMV for two nights.