About our documusical: Octavia of Earth
Octavia of Earth is a docu-musical inspired by the life of science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler. The stories we bring to life through the show are based on published interviews Butler gave during her lifetime, archival research we’ve done in the Octavia E. Butler Papers at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, original interviews with a few people who knew Butler in life, and a close reading of her novels, essays, and short stories. Tender, funny, and magical, Octavia of Earth presents the human side of the mysterious founding mother of Afrofuturism. The live show incorporates documentary film components in place of spoken dialogue. Octavia of Earth focuses on Butler’s early years as a child and adolescent in Southern California, as a young adult struggling to find a path forward for her creative aspirations, and as an established author of critical renown but limited commercial success. Volume 1, developed in 2017 and 2018, includes 10 short films and 9 original songs.
About Octavia E. Butler
Octavia Estelle Butler (1947-2006) was an American science fiction writer, and the first black woman in her field. She was born and raised in Pasadena, California by her mother, Octavia Margaret Butler. A shy, only child, Octavia began writing at 10, and turned to science fiction by 12. Octavia pursued creative writing courses at Pasadena City College, where she graduated with an Associate's degree. She went on to California State University, Los Angeles, where she studied a variety of subjects, but never completed a degree. In 1976, Doubleday published Octavia's first novel, Patternmaster. Her best-known work, Kindred, appeared in 1979. In 1995, Octavia became the first science fiction writer to receive a prestigious MacArthur "Genius" grant. In all, Octavia published 12 novels and one volume of short works. She passed away suddenly after a fall outside her home in 2006, at the age of 58. – Adapted from: Biographical Note in Finding Aid, Octavia E. Butler Papers, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
"When I was in my teens […] someone would always ask, ‘If you could do anything you wanted to do, no holds barred, what would you do?’ I’d answer that I wanted to live forever and breed people—which didn’t go over all that well with my friends." – Butler, Octavia E., Larry McCaffery, and Jim McMenamin. Across the Wounded Galaxy: Interviews with Contemporary American Science Fiction Writers.
How did we get here?
a brief history from director Anand Jay Kalra
In July 2015, T. Carlis Roberts (UC Berkeley School of Music) and I met at an information session for the Queer Cultural Center's small grants program, Creating Queer Communities, here in Oakland. We hit it off and decided to submit a proposal together for the 2016 National Queer Arts Festival, and put together a theatrical concert featuring T's group, The Singing Bois (a genderqueer pop quartet), and a group of all transgender men singers I formed out of community workshops. We performed that concert to a sold-out house of 200 seats in June 2016, and T and I formed a deep bond through the ups and downs of preparing.
A few months later, I texted T on a whim and asked if they wanted to write a musical together with me, and they replied right away that they were about to ask me the same thing. So we met up for lunch and discussed possible topics. T teaches courses on AfroFuturism at Berkeley, and I am generally a nerd (I'm a librarian by training and apply that framework in an outside-the-box way in social justice organizations, particularly around transgender health, HIV advocacy and leadership training, and digital storytelling). Octavia's name came up in that initial conversation as someone we admired and whose work had been formative for us, and also because, while her work is wildly popular in both of our networks, neither of us knew much about her as an actual human. We knew of Octavia-the-Prophet of the public imagination, but who was she in real life?
Luckily, that was the year that Clockshop organized the Radio Imagination series at the Huntington Library, and T. and I took a few days of work for a quick trip to LA to catch Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble perform her Xenogenesis Suite and do some initial research at the Huntington. The change in our perspectives between when we walked into the Huntington and when we left was profound - instead of finding a larger-than-life, prophetic, ethereal, untouchable savant, we found someone who was grounded, vulnerable, wise, relatable, and deeply human. Through research trips over the next few months, plus reading Gerry Canavan's then-brand-new biography and piecing together numerous interviews (plus finishing reading Octavia's published canon), we sat down in my living room to sketch an outline for a full two-act musical, focusing on key moments in her life and relationships with her mother, her imagination, and friends she made along the course of her life. We recognized that Octavia was incredibly private about her life while living, and aimed to present her in a way that, to our best estimation, she would appreciate, while still showing her as a fully fallible human. One of our key takeaways ("I always thought she'd be weirder") ended up being the opening line in the prologue to the musical.
From this sketch, we drafted 3 songs in the winter and early spring of 2017 ("Devil Girl from Mars," "Patterns," and "More Than I Ever Could", the last of which was subsequently cut). I wrote the lyrics, T wrote the music, and after a lot of passionate discussion and many drafts, we wound up with songs we really liked. One of T's extremely talented former students, Jaren Feeley, arranged and recorded the accompaniments for each song on his home piano and organ. In April of that year, we presented a sketch of our research and sang those three songs at Cal State University Northridge's "Speculative Futures of Race" Symposium, to a small audience (about 20 or so people). Despite the small audience, the front row was stacked with the keynote speakers, including Nalo Hopkinson, Valorie Thomas, and Zeal Harris, so we were plenty nervous! Fortunately, the audience responded well, laughing at the right places during Devil Girl and visibly moved during Patterns. This was a deeply joyful moment for us -- our proof-of-concept really worked!
The next month, T's band was taking off and getting ready for a small tour, so they decided they needed to step back from the project, which we were then calling 8 Star, after Octavia's nickname/codename for herself. I was devastated to lose my writing partner, especially in those first few months after the election (election, coup, whatever you want to call it). Writing the songs had been one of the big things helping me move forward through that chaos. After taking a minute to adjust, and with T's blessing, I decided to move forward to produce demo recordings of the three songs. This is where the magic started becoming unbelievable - yes, of course, we had done a lot of work so far, but pieces just started falling into place. I had met Woodrow Thompson singing in the Oakland East-Bay Gay Men's Chorus, and was thrilled when he, a career triple-threat dancer-singer-actor who had spent most of his life in international touring companies of Broadway shows, agreed to sing the Proto part on Patterns for a tiny stipend.
I reached out to my friend Orchid Pusey, who directs Voices: Lesbian A Capella for Justice here in Oakland, to ask for recommendations of who might be a good fit for the Octavia part. She suggested a new member of the group, Adrian Applin, who responded almost immediately to my shy inquiry email [sidenote: Adrian started transitioning last year, and was previously going by the name Jazmine, his birth name - you'll see his name written as Jazmine in some of the links in this email, and as Adrian in others, this is just due to which pieces I've had a chance to update]. Adrian grew up singing in his dad's Motown cover band, and is a hardcore sci-fi nerd, and a talented musician in his own right. Through another friend, Sabiha Basrai, I connected first with Erica Dunkle, who sang the Margaret role on the demo recordings and later became involved with the tech & backstage portions of the stage show. We recorded in one afternoon at Ghost Cat Studios, a home set-up run by the partner of someone I had done odd-jobs for when I was fresh out of college during the Bush administration. I'm including all these names not to name-drop, but to give credit where credit is due -- this project has been a team effort from the beginning, and has come from genuine relationships in real community.
So, now we had these demo recordings, and I wanted to reach out to Merrilee to seek permission to use direct quotes and some images from some of the papers in collection at the Huntington, plus, ideally, make direct references from published work and interview living friends and family members. This was a lot to ask as an artist without years of proof to back up our ambitious vision, and honestly, I was just hoping she wouldn't send back a cease-and-desist letter. : ) Sabiha connected me with Adrienne Maree Brown, whom she's known since Adrienne's days in the Bay, so I could ask her advice, and Adrienne connected me with Dr. Ayana Jamieson, who co-organizes the Octavia E. Butler Legacy Network. Ayana and I exchanged emails, and she agreed to forward my request to Merrilee.
In the meantime, SafeHouse for the Performing Arts, a small performance space in San Francisco, selected me as one of 3 Bay Area artists for their AIRSpace Fellowship for queer and trans artists of color. The program was a year long and included opportunities to perform 4 times during the year. This was the farthest I'd ever made it towards my dream of being a real-life playwright, and I felt overwhelmed by the opportunity. Adrian agreed to sign on for all 4 performances, but Woody had moved back to Germany, and we only had 3 songs. I knew we needed more people on board to pull this thing off, but I didn't yet know where to look. In particular, I wanted to make sure I was building the show in community with black women artists who resonated with Octavia's work. While I, as a nerdy trans man of color, had certainly done my homework on the research side and felt a sense of connection through racial and gendered outsider-ness, along with my own sensibilities as a writer, it felt important to write the show in collaboration with black women artists who would bring their own insights and experiences. While I could certainly appreciate Octavia as a person, I was clear that my aim was to avoid merely appropriating her story, a likely scenario if I were working on my own, no matter how well-intentioned I might be.
Again, the magic of community took over - at SafeHouse's open house in November 2017, my mind and heart almost exploded when I saw Itoro Udofia and Joslynn Mathis Reed perform - Joslynn dancing while Itoro stood in the back with a single microphone to amplify her voice. I knew, of course, that these two magical people were *way* too cool to work with me, but after their performance was over, I wiped the sweat off my palms and shuffled over to give my fanboi compliments. A few months later, I invited Itoro and Joslynn over for dinner to tell them about the vision for the show and gauge their interest in collaborating. They thought it over and came back with a yes, and I was over the moon. Itoro agreed to make three songs set in the world of Octavia's imagination, with Joslynn as choreographer and featured dancer for the full show. My friend Vera Hannush agreed to play the Devil Girl from Mars herself, and we were almost a full cast. The Margaret role turned out to be the hardest one to fill, mostly due to scheduling challenges, but we were lucky enough to have Erica Richardson join us for the opening in June, and Emily Phillips played the role in the closing in September. For the sake of saving time and stretching our budget, Adrian and I decided that I would play the Proto part, and I met our wonderful stage manager, Saloni Desai, at her day job as a massage therapist.
Merrilee, Rebecca, and I went back and forth over phone & email for a few months, and I felt so encouraged by their kind and direct communication, even though in the end they declined the requests I'd made - through the whole conversation, they treated me with respect and openness, even though I was just some random guy in California asking for the moon. We got the news the day before our rehearsal kickoff, and while we were certainly bummed, Joslynn and Vera started working on the choreography to Devil Girl, and we all lost ourselves in the joy of creation.
By our June opening, Itoro had added 2 songs, "Emergence" and "Hypnosis," and I had rewritten the moment that "More than I Ever Could" attempted to capture into a new song, "All You'll Do." Here's a video of Joslynn and Adrian performing "Emergence" from that opening night (the music is a little different than what you heard on the recording I sent before). If you're short on time, you can skip ahead to about 45 seconds into the video, where the dancing begins. The show sold out 3 days before the opening, and the audience was with us from start to finish - all the questions we had about whether this piece or that choice would work were laid to rest. Certainly, we had room for improvement, and we made changes as run went on, but overall, we knew this thing worked!
In July, an idea for an "awkward high school era" song crystallized into "Live Forever," and our team had gelled enough that they were willing to try it on 2 days before July performances the show for the first time - Adrian learned the lyrics practically overnight, Joslynn choreographed it in a matter of minutes, and we practiced our buns off to get it right for the weekend's performances. The show sold out again for both July performances, and we were ecstatic and exhausted. The song came from a quote T first encountered in Gerry Canavan's biography -- "When I was in my teens, a group of us used to talk about our hopes and dreams, and someone would always ask, “If you could do anything you wanted to do, no holds barred, what would you do? I’d answer that I wanted to live forever and breed people—which didn’t go over all that well with my friends." (Butler, Octavia E., Larry McCaffery, and Jim McMenamin. "Across the Wounded Galaxy: Interviews with Contemporary American Science Fiction Writers." (1990): 54.) We couldn't resist the camp opportunity this presented.
Between July and September, when we had our final performance, Itoro wrote one more song, then called Amazonia (now called Xenophonia), and I added "End of the World" and "Anywhere," plus the second act films (here's the one that sets up End of the World). The performance was on September 13, so the 9/11 feelings in "End of the World" landed particularly well with the audience (another full crowd, and another piece of encouragement that we were doing things right). In all, we raised $5500 in donations, and I contributed most of my fellowship award ($2400), with a final budget around $7,000 (we applied for one grant but were not selected). The majority of the money went to the creators and performers for their contributions, with a small amount for equipment, advertising, and graphic & scenic design (here's the backdrop for Junie's childhood bedroom, for example, and the Mars backdrop). We ended up with 9 songs, 10 films in between them, and 4 films that project during Live Forever, Patterns, End of the World, and Xenophonia. Here's the one for Patterns, for example, all pulled from archival public domain footage from the Prelinger Archives (you can click the closed captioning button to see how the lyrics line up). Altogether, this makes up about half the material we'd eventually like to create.
Once the show closed, Adrian and I got to work prepping for the recording. Melanie DeMore, another person I considered way out of our league, graciously agreed to sing the Margaret role for the recording, again for a small stipend, and Erica Dunkle and Edie Irons, who'd joined the production for the September show, continued on for the recording sessions in October through January. The bassist for Adrian's dad's Motown band happened to be James Earley, a multi-platinum producer who's toured with MC Hammer, En Vogue, and Luther Vandross - James agreed to engineer and produce our CD for a family rate, and connected us to mastering engineer Piper Payne, who's a former president of the San Francisco chapter of the Recording Academy (the Grammy's). So, 2 1/2 years after T and I sat down to noodle ideas for a potential musical, we had a ready-to-release album, with creative contributions in one form or another from more than a dozen people. What's next for the show? Stay tuned to the News page for updates.