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February 25, 2020 | Theatre,

Toshi Reagon and the Musical Revolution of Parable of the Sower

Self described as a “postmodern rhythm & blues woman who’s got something special,” it is no surprise that Toshi Reagon has captured the attention of artists and activists worldwide. Toshi is many things — a musician, writer, composer, and producer just to name a few — and the combination of her skills and voice have created a movement that ties the political to the artistic, to song to the earth, and the personal to the community.

Born in Atlanta to civil rights leaders and musicians Bernice Johnson Reagon and Cordell Hull Reagon and raised in Washington D.C., Toshi Reagon was surrounded by the power of music and its transformational capabilities from birth (she’s named after artist and activist Toshi Seeger, partner of Pete Seeger). Reagon began touring at age 17, opening for Lenny Kravitz. She’s gone on to build an incredible storied career, including work with powerful artists like Ani DiFranco, Elvis Costello, and Meshell Ndegeocello. This lifelong devotion to music fuels her operatic adaptation of Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower (MAR 26-29).

Moving seamlessly from an autobiographical lyric directly into a protest song, and then perhaps a funny aside or moving calling to action, attending a Toshi Reagon performance can feel like an a deep dive into musicology, soulful politics, and our shared history.

After author and activist adrienne marie brown attended a performance, she noted “Toshi is not just conducting the musicians, the sounds…She is orchestrating emotional liberation from apathy and oppression, with our bodies as instruments. This is sound healing.”

Toshi’s love for Octavia E. Butler’s novel blossomed in the late nineties, soon after the book was first published. The novel was a gift from her mother Bernice, who promised Toshi they’d sing the story of together someday. In this way, Parable of the Sower is a mother-daughter promise redeemed twenty years later. But even beyond that, Octavia E. Butler’s experience as a black woman writing in the science fiction genre drew Toshi in further. In an interview with The New York Times, Toshi remarks, “I don’t know many black women who haven’t read [Parable of the Sower]. What’s really incredible is that black people insist on being in the future. Women insist on being in the future.”

This deep connection to the genre of Afrofuturism is directly in line with Toshi’s dedication to bridging the arts and activism. When asked in an NBC interview, “What does it mean to you right now that it’s queer women of color who are leading the resistance?” Toshi responded with, “I’m not surprised. We have always done this—lead the resistance.” While the burden cannot and should not rest on marginalized identities, Toshi has brought the mantle of her mother and father’s work into conversation with Butler’s own ideologies and liberation ideals. It is these intergenerational and vital traditions that are seen not only in Toshi’s philosophies, but even in the music throughout Parable, with 200 years of black music history married to a contemporary composition. In every part of this opera, Toshi has imagined the future and connected directly to the past in front of audiences eager to witness and experience a transformation.

Through her music, through her voice, and through her aptitude to inspire, Toshi’s legacy will be that of change and changing. These absolutely excellent parts of Toshi Reagon culminate in the Cutler Majestic Theatre MAR 26-29 during Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower. Come change and be changed.

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