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Monday February 6th

Octavia Butler's 'Parable of the Sower' will be reimagined as an opera

Poet Alexis P. Gumbs bases work off of Octavia Butler's messages. Courtesy of Alexis P. Gumbs.
Buy Photos Poet Alexis P. Gumbs bases work off of Octavia Butler's messages. Courtesy of Alexis P. Gumbs.

An opera version of Octavia Butler’s novel “Parable of the Sower” is set to premiere at Memorial Hall on Thursday.  As part of a free event series celebrating the premiere, co-creator of the opera and musician Toshi Reagon will be discussing Butler’s work and its meaning with poet and activist Alexis P. Gumbs.

The event, which will be held tomorrow at Gerrard Hall at 7 p.m., will be moderated by Dr. Danielle Spurlock, a UNC assistant professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning. 

Spurlock, who got involved with the event after working with Reagon at a Durham non-profit called SpiritHouse, said the beauty of “The Parable of the Sower” is that it reflects today's society.

“You can see in ‘Parable of the Sower’ where societal decay that seems possible within our current context could get us to the place that Octavia is describing — where people have to purchase water because of environmental degradation and where they’re making choices about the contact of police because of public service cutbacks,” Spurlock said. “It’s in many cases defining what I hope to be the other extreme of where  society is looping toward, but at the same time what could happen with major public policy failures.”

Spurlock added that looking into the future and envisioning is a large part of planning, and said she hopes that people can gather that takeaway from the event to use in their own lives.

Gumbs said that the impact of Butler’s work, especially in the field of science fiction, is huge. She hopes people can realize how relevant her message is in our current society. 

“Communities rereading or reading the parable series is important now because we do have an opportunity to do things differently, collectively," Gumbs said. "We don’t have to just wait for all of these things to actually happen, since they do kind of represent the worst possible outcomes.”

Gumbs also said she thinks Reagon’s use of the tradition of Black music to further the message of “Parable of the Sower” is going to make people benefit even more from the story’s meaning. 

“I think the brilliant thing about Toshi adapting this into an opera is that she really does believe that it’s urgent for people to kind of take the message from this book and use it to live differently and respond and do things together,” Gumbs said. “The main character of "Parable of the Sower" is trying to find a way to communicate the vision that she has of what needs to change in her community. It’s almost as if Toshi’s taking off where the protagonist leaves off in terms of creating this opera.”

The transformation of “The Parable of the Sower” into an opera is bringing together different communities, such as individuals with a passion for Butler’s work and individuals with a passion for music history. 

Barb Smalley, a Durham resident who plans to attend the event, said Toshi’s adaptation of the novel with music coincides with work she did with Ladyslipper Music in Durham to “focus on promoting public awareness of accomplishments of women in music, and not just from the performance standpoint, but also production and every part of it.”

“My attraction to the performance and the work is mostly about the music and its connection to the women’s music movement that started in the 70s,” Smalley said. 

Gumbs said she hopes the event and the opera can really show people the beauty of Butler’s work, and that she is appreciative of Reagon for realizing how important it is for the message to be shared.

“I think it’s genius, I think its on-time, and I think it’s crucial, and I’m really grateful for it,” she said. 


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