BY Sara Beth Levavy
Michelle Robinson’s interests in American history and culture are vast. An Associate Professor of American Studies at UNC, her courses can cover race, gender, sexuality, literary narrative, religion, film, or comedy through the lens of popular culture. Robinson looks at how, through different kinds of communities, all varieties of American-ness are expressed.
“American Studies cultivates an appetite for the future,” Robinson says. “It’s a field that helps us become fluent, culturally, and helps us to understand the way that both the United States and its relationship to the globe is changing.” All of which is very important in studying Octavia E. Butler’s science fiction novel Parable of the Sower, a novel she has taught multiple times in UNC’s classrooms and that has been adapted for the stage by Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon. Carolina Performing Arts is presenting the North American debut of the Reagons’ genre-blending opera in November.
Parable of the Sower touches on several of Robinson’s research interests and she often teaches it in relationship to the fiction written by Ray Bradbury and other authors whose work is from the decades of the space race—when writers used their stories to speculate about how the existence of astronauts changed the way people could think about human development and national boundaries. Through Parable, Robinson teaches the nature of community building and the ethics that are tied up in that process. (Butler herself used the American war in Iraq in the early-1990s as a way of thinking about the world she created in Parable.)
At bottom, Robinson is a fan of Butler’s work. Paging through a series of photographs of notes in Butler’s archive at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, CA, Robinson stops to comment on Butler’s writing and re-writing of definitions for the word “empathy.” It is a critical word for Parable’s protagonist, who suffers from the fictional “hyper-empathy syndrome,” a psychosomatic condition. Empathy is “a projection, not necessarily voluntary, of the self onto the feelings of others,” Butler wrote. Which is also one of keys to how Robinson has built her relationship with Carolina Performing Arts – how ideas of inclusion and exclusion can become gestural, how communities can adapt and change. Critical to Butler’s thinking about Parable, Robinson says, is seeing how she transformed elements of the present into the raw materials of imagining the future.
Sara Beth Levavy served as the Mellon Post Doctoral Fellow at Carolina Performing Arts for the 2016-2017 season.