Staging Octavia Butler in Abu Dhabi


Arts & Culture

The Louvre Abu Dhabi

The Louvre Abu Dhabi, designed by Jean Nouvel, opened in November after years of delay and a cost rumored to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The same weekend as LAD’s grand opening, the NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Center hosted the world premiere of Parable of the Sower, an opera composed by the singer/songwriter Toshi Reagon, a queer Brooklyn-based activist, and based on the prophetic novel by Octavia Butler. At first glance, it seems unlikely that a “starchitect” museum in Abu Dhabi, where gas is cheap and water is expensive, would stage an opera about a fiery, drought-ridden apocalypse. And yet, taken together, the museum and the opera initiate a set of conversations—about art and culture and change—that upend stereotypes about the Gulf.

The book Parable of the Sower (1993) was intended as the first of a trilogy. It’s set in a world where California is burning, rivers have dried up, and the president sells entire towns to the highest corporate bidder. Violence is everywhere, and not even houses of worship are safe. In the second book, Parable of the Talents (1998), a president is elected who promises to “make America great again.” The third book was never published. Given Butler’s prescience about America’s worst impulses, perhaps it’s best that the third book never came out: Do any of us really want to know how bad things might become?

The teenage heroine of the story, Lauren Olamina, flees her town on the outskirts of Los Angeles after the neighborhood is burned and looted by “pyros,” people addicted to a drug that makes fires better than sex. Along with two other survivors from the neighborhood massacre, Lauren decides to walk north, perhaps to Canada or to anywhere where “water doesn’t cost more than food.”

The subject matter of Parable doesn’t immediately suggest “opera.” But, as Reagon told me, “theater is a great way to talk about hard things.” Working in collaboration with her mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of the musical ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, Toshi Reagon used the novel as the basis for a song cycle. The song cycle debuted in 2015, and the opera version two years later, although Toshi describes it still as a “work in progress.” She wanted it to be seen. “After Trump was elected,” she said, “the conversation [started by the novel] needed to happen now. We can’t wait.” Given that the devastation of climate change is one of the “hard things” addressed in the opera, staging this work in Abu Dhabi takes on a dramatic resonance: Abu Dhabi faces the very real possibility of running out of its water reserves within the next thirty-five years (and relies on desalination for more than 90 percent of its domestic water consumption).

The West doesn’t generally think of the Gulf as a place where conversations about climate change are taking place. Instead, the West seems to view the Gulf as a bling-bling country that stops counting its petrol dollars only long enough to oppress its migrant labor force. “The Middle East” is just a swirl of veiled ladies, oil rigs, and the occasional jihadi. But were these stereotypes the full picture, the so-called repressive government of the Emirates would have long ago swooped in to shut down the opera Parable. They have not, and yet the opera follows in the long tradition of protest music (Toshi is named for the wife of her godfather, Pete Seeger), and issues a clarion call for social and political change.

As Lauren walks north, she spreads a religious message. She calls her religion Earthseed, and one of its fundamental principles is that “all you touch you change. All that you change changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is change.” What begins as an escape from the wreckage of her town becomes a quest to start an Earthseed community. Her urgency to change the world propels her onward.

Toshi Reagon

The opera stays true to the bleakness of the novel, with one significant alteration, which Reagon explains to the audience about midway through the performance. “Octavia Butler included all kinds of people in her novel, but she didn’t call up a folk singer,” she says, and shakes her head in disbelief. “You gotta have a folk singer, who will sing a very long song with lots of details, and a singable chorus—every movement needs a folk singer.”

And then, at every performance, she paused here and smiled. “So I put myself in it, and there’s a part in here for you, too.” The folk song, “Olivar Blues” is about a town that gets sold to a corporation called KSF. Lauren is surprised that the town allows itself to be sold, because it’s “upper middle class, white, [and] literate.” But the town is crumbling into the sea on the one side and under siege from the migrating poor on the other, and KSF promises to keep the town safe. In exchange, KSF gets a ready supply of cheap labor and access to the town’s water.

“Olivar Blues” lives up to Toshi’s description: it’s a long song about how gentrification, corporate greed, and the seductive ease of online life erode our communities, without our even noticing. The song tells us that we should have “given two fucks,” we should have “done more to make some changes.” The chorus—the audience part—is simple: “don’t let your baby go to Ol-i-var.” At every performance I attended, the audience sang, and loudly, right through to the song’s final lines: “fight, fight, strat-e-gize, stay together, equal rights.” As we sang, I looked around. A few rows in front of me, I saw a mild-mannered Emirati student of mine punching her fists in the air, while her friend, a girl from Korea, stamped her feet and swayed to the beat.

When I talked with those students after the show, they said it was “amazing,” and “awesome.” They loved the singing. “It’s like we were in it together,” they said. What we were “in” was a moment of communal power, a space devoted to the possibility of change.

The chaos in the world of Parable mirrors our own moment, in which it is impossible not to imagine that an apocalypse is imminent. And yet, because we get to sing along, the opera creates a sense of optimism lacking in the novel: It’s hard to sing along with a book. The opera encourages—even demands—that we sing and clap, that we whoop and stamp our feet.

As I sang along to “Olivar Blues,” I thought about the migrant workers in Abu Dhabi living in labor camps outside of town—and then wondered about migrant workers living in similar conditions in the U.S. When the ensemble sang “it don’t rain no more,” I thought about the irrigation hoses that coil around every tree in Abu Dhabi, and those in turn reminded me of the images from California and Western Canada over the past few months, in flames from drought-fueled wildfires. The opera created a kind of double mirror, reflecting on the world in multiple directions.

That reflection process also happens in the galleries of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which create a conversation between East and West without the West being automatically situated as dominant. The thematic arrangement of the galleries means that you might see a Quran displayed next to a carved Madonna next to a statue of Shiva—and while you might disagree with this method, you can’t help but think about the global circulation (and appropriation) of ideas, images, and artifacts.

The museum and the opera remind us that change doesn’t happen in a steady trajectory or a tidy timeline. Earthseed stipulates that “the only lasting truth is change,” but as Lauren’s journey makes clear, planting the seeds of change requires engagement and persistence. At the end of the opera, Toshi sings the Biblical version of the parable of the sower, which in the King James translation refers to the “good ground” that is needed for seeds to grow. Parable and the Louvre Abu Dhabi suggest that fertile ground can be found even in the desert.


Deborah Lindsay Williams is the program head for Literature and Creative Writing at NYU Abu Dhabi, and a columnist for The National, the English language newspaper of the United Arab Emirates. Recent work of hers has appeared in the New York Times, Inside Higher Ed, and She is writing a book about Abu Dhabi and New York.