Toshi Reagon, left, and Josette Newsam lead people in a community sing-along at Unitarian Universalist Church in Brunswick on Tuesday. The group was taught songs from an opera based on Octavia E. Butler’s book, “Parable of the Sower,” created by Reagon and her mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Musician Toshi Reagon sat on the stage at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Brunswick on Tuesday evening and prepared to hit the play button on her laptop.

“This is like the big, last song of the show,” she told the audience. “So make sure you sing very loud and make all the people around you jealous.”

Everyone laughed and gathered close to her as the guitar music started. Reagon clapped to the beat between their lines: “All that you touch, you change,” they sang. “All that you change changes you. The only lasting truth is change.”

Fifty or so people had gathered to learn songs from an opera based on Octavia E. Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” that will be presented to a sold-out crowd Friday at Merrill Auditorium by the Indigo Arts Alliance and Portland Ovations. Reagon, whose style ranges from folk to funk to rock, and whose past collaborators include Lenny Kravitz and Ani DiFranco, wrote the music and lyrics with her mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of the renowned all-Black female a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock.

The younger Reagon brought not only the opera to Maine but also a program she calls Parable Path, a series of events across the state over the past year that focused on themes in Butler’s landmark novel such as climate change and racial justice. Reagon also spent the year as a visiting fellow at Bowdoin College, coming to Maine four times to meet with students, artists, and community organizers.

Toshi Reagon in a performance of “Parable of the Sower” at UCLA. 200307 Photo by Reed Hutchinson/CA

“We all are witnessing some pretty destructive human habits on the planet, and we all want to do something about it,” Reagon said in a Zoom interview from New York City last week. “I always think singing and art and creating are really important for humans and one of the best ways to get people to work together and also to get people to digest complex information.”


The project also has created a unique collaboration among Bowdoin, the Indigo Arts Alliance, Maine Humanities Council, and Portland Ovations. Each partner brought different expertise, and all said their work with Reagon and the buildup to the opera has been an energizing and enlightening experience.

“She has a really beautiful ability to articulate the vision in a way that makes people really believe that it’s going to happen, and I think that ability is very powerful,” said Judith Casselberry, an associate professor of Africana Studies at Bowdoin. “Her presence brings that and gives people the sense that this can actually happen.”

Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” was published in 1993 but opens in the year 2024. The author imagined a world in which systemic injustice and global warming had led to social chaos and anarchy. The story follows a teenage girl named Lauren Olamina, who has a debilitating sensitivity to other people’s emotions. As she fights for survival, she also creates a new belief system for the post-apocalyptic society. “Parable of the Sower” has been described as prescient because of the clarity with which Butler envisioned the real-world disasters of the next millennium.

Attendees of a community sing-along with Toshi Reagon and Josette the Newsam at Unitarian Universalist Church in Brunswick on Tuesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer


Reagon started working on the opera in 2015, and it has been presented around the world since its premiere in 2017. Portland Ovations describes it as “a genre-defying, modern congregational opera that celebrates two centuries of Black music.” Bringing it to Maine took significant funding, coordination, and personal connections.

In 2019, Marcia and Daniel Minter founded Indigo Arts Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to the creative cultivation of artists of African descent. Reagon is a longtime friend, and the Minters invited her to perform a concert at the launch. Portland Ovations, where Marcia Minter had previously been on the board, helped with that event. Minter started talking with Aimee Petrin, executive and artistic director at Portland Ovations, about whether it might be possible to bring “Parable of the Sower” to Maine as well.


Reagon also has a longtime connection with Casselberry, who has been a guitarist and vocalist in her band BIGLovely. Casselberry knew about the opera and also wanted to bring it to Bowdoin, but the theater on campus was too small to support the production. She also knew about the programming that Reagon designed around the opera and thought a fellowship at the college’s McKeen Center for the Common Good would be the right way to support the Parable Path.

Eventually, these efforts merged. Casselberry then shared the plans with Samaa Abdurraqib, executive director of the Maine Humanities Council, who told her the organization was planning a series of events focused on Afrofuturism, including works by Butler. Everything came together. (“We were, like, screaming,” said Casselberry.)

That collaboration has resulted in months of events across the state with and without Reagon. Her visits usually include a meeting with community activists to talk about their ongoing projects, and she also has joined in talks and hosted community sing-alongs. Minter, from Indigo Arts Alliance, said those conversations have covered important social issues in the state, like land rights for Indigenous people and youth incarceration.

“Artists have a way of touching hearts and minds to drive a reckoning,” Minter said. “I think the moment is really converging to bring this opera particularly to Maine at a point where I think Maine has evolved to have a new level of awareness around all of those issues. … It just couldn’t be a better time to bring this work to Portland.”


King Weatherspoon is a sophomore at Bowdoin, majoring in Africana studies and anthropology with a minor in English. Weatherspoon hadn’t read “Parable of the Sower” until Casselberry encouraged it and then blazed through the novel in two days. The young protagonist in particular left a lasting impression.


“The structure of our world tells us that young people don’t know anything,” Weatherspoon said. “They’re too emotional. They don’t think things through. Here’s Lauren Olamina, this 15-year-old Black woman who is the only one thinking things through, the only one rising to the task. It really highlights an example of how children are in the know. They do have their finger on the pulse of the world, and they can feel the winds changing.”

Weatherspoon applied that idea during the Parable Path by organizing a poetry concert that highlighted original work by Bowdoin students. Reagon wasn’t there, but Weatherspoon said Reagon’s call to build community inspired them during that planning process.

“I’m not one to delegate tasks,” said Weatherspoon. “It really challenged me to work with a team and to create something that couldn’t be done alone. No matter how talented you are or how hard you work, there is some perspective that can’t be tapped into if you don’t have a community that’s willing to work with you.”

Reagon leading people in a community sing-along at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Brunswick. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Abdurraqib, from the Maine Humanities Council, described Reagon as “a powerful visionary.” The council received a $250,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for programming on the theme of Afrofuturism, including the Parable Path. That money has supported community meetings with Reagon during her visits to Maine and reading groups at libraries in Brunswick, Lewiston, and Bangor.

Abdurraqib hopes readers feel a sense of urgency instead of despair when they see the dystopian world of “Parable of the Sower.”

“In all of Butler’s work, no matter how bleak it is, there’s always hope,” she said.


Petrin, from Portland Ovations, saw “Parable of the Sower” at the International Festival of Arts and Ideas a few years ago. She was struck in particular by the wide range of music and described it as “an opera of our time.”

“She has done something unique and special in how she translates Octavia Butler,” Petrin said. “Not just the words, but also the mood that Toshi can create with her ensemble.”

A performance of “Parable of the Sower” at UCLA. Photo by Reed Hutchinson/CA

But bringing this show to Maine has been no small task, and financial support from Bowdoin has been key to covering the high cost of producing a large and complicated show. The ensemble includes more than 20 musicians, and they needed to use the rehearsal space for multiple days leading up to the performance.

“This is a piece that otherwise only shows up in big cities and important universities, and the fact that we have it here in Maine because of Indigo and because of Bowdoin, it’s a once in a lifetime,” Petrin said.

The opera itself is the culmination of the Parable Path, but Reagon has said she plans to return to Maine. On Tuesday evening, she applauded at the end of the sing-along, a full smile on her face. Before the crowd parted, she encouraged those present to use their individual abilities to protect the planet and other people from harm.

“Your particular genius that I know each of you have, that is your operating station,” she said. “Go out and do the damn thing.”

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