Today, March 26th, 2020 was the scheduled start date for Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower at the Cutler Majestic Theatre. To explain how and why the venue will be empty tonight rather than filled with the songs of Bernice and Toshi Reagon, artistic director David Dower explains the conversations and events that led us to this moment over the last few weeks
As we moved through the process of decision-making related to our response to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was on the phone with Toshi Reagon. Toshi’s a resident artist with ArtsEmerson—all the way through December of 2021—and her production of Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower was due to arrive in a few weeks.
I began the call determined to reassure her that we were going to do everything we could to present the performances as scheduled. Parable is an urgent and timely work that imagines strategies for rebuilding community in the face of a complete collapse—of the environment, of institutions, of civil society. Its author, Octavia E. Butler had visions of communal responses to changing conditions on the planet. Change, she said, was a given, a state of nature. “All that you touch you change. All that you change, changes you. The only Truth is Change.” Toshi had been teaching us, over the first six months of her residency, that our work together would be about evolving strategies for surviving and thriving, existing inside that natural state of change. Even at this late date, we felt certain it was imperative that people gather in our theater in this moment to hear this message of surviving, and thriving, through adapted behavior.
This was Wednesday morning, March 11th 2020, and at the time it still felt like the truest way to stand in solidarity with our artists, with our audiences, with our staff, and with our city.
“I hear you,” Toshi said, “and I am right with you. I appreciate you fighting for my show and I am on fire to bring it to Boston. And…” Here she paused to clear the air. “What if we instead didn’t fight to save it? What if we listened to it? What if we learned from it and changed our behavior accordingly? What if not gathering is the perfect expression of togetherness in this moment?”
A moment of clarity in a fog of confusion. There was no clear voice in the White House. The Governor hadn’t yet called for any social distancing measures. Nor had the city. Lacking any clear and galvanizing direction, each of us had been left to make our own path through existential threats. And, as an arts professional, I was battling my instincts and my training. “The show must go on!” is the rallying cry that every high school theater kid learns the first week of rehearsal. It had carried us through weather calamities and economic meltdowns, through bombings and 9/11. And, as an organization dedicated to connection across difference and building community through shared experience of art and dialogue, ArtsEmerson’s core values center around being together in our differences. Closing our theaters was unimaginable.
Until it wasn’t.
Until it became clear that it was the best way we could create community in this moment.
In the era of AIDS, in which I came of age, the activist response, the loving response, was to stand as close as possible to the afflicted and at risk; to hold them tightly and say loudly and publicly to the culture at large, “We are not afraid of our brothers and sisters. I will not die if we use the same bathroom. You cannot kill me with a hug. I can hold your hands without fear.”
But this is the era of COVID-19, and the activist response is to say to our community members at greatest risk, as loudly and as clearly as we can, “I will stand with you by standing at a distance.” Our collective efforts will center on not gathering you in the dark, but instead on breaking the back of the spread of the virus in our community by distancing ourselves. Once we’ve succeeded, then we’ll come together to celebrate our victory together.
We want to focus on this picture for a moment—the moment of our return to gathering together in the dark for stories that connect us. We’re claiming that space in the future. We see ourselves there. We see you in it with us. And until we accomplish this community goal, we will see you online. Together. Apart.
After the decision to postpone Parable was announced, Toshi Reagon wrote to ArtsEmerson staff, though she might just as well have been writing to the whole city of Boston:
“I hear a lot of talk about the apocalypse. I don’t mind us thinking about an end. I don’t mind us contemplating… And I am not here for the apocalypse. Not at all. It is completely possible to not live in a pit of violence and distraction. Most every species on the planet knows how to do this. This is our time. I’m looking for people to walk with.”
Over on HowlRound, we’ll soon post this conversation with Toshi, myself, and David Howse. We invite you to curl up with your beverage of choice and listen in as we stand together by standing apart.