Saturday, January 31, 2015

ArtsEmerson Presents "Breath & Imagination" by Daniel Beaty - The Story of Roland Hayes Will Take Your Breath Away!

In staging Daniel Beaty's stunning and poetic dramatization of the life and struggles of the legendary singer Roland Hayes, ArtsEmerson has accomplished several things.  First, the organization has cemented its already strong reputation for bringing to Boston audiences talent from across the U.S. and around the world that might not otherwise be seen here.  Secondly,they have spoken loudly, by their actions, of their deep commitment to reach out into the Boston community beyond the bounds of traditional patrons of the arts.  Last season's "King Lear" and "A Trip To Bountiful" were well supported by Boston's African-American communities, and the reach of ArtsEmerson into Roxbury and other neighborhoods is building a bridge between the Downtown artistic community and those who traditionally have not had access to professional theater.

"Breath & Imagination" is the first offering in a three-year-long program in which playwright Daniel Beaty will be in residence, presenting three of his plays and serving as a catalyst to engage the ArtsEmerson community with communities of color throughout the Boston area, while at the same time incorporating local talent into the presentations at Emerson's performance venues.  The performance I attended of "Breath & Imagination" portends a very successful outcome for this bold vision.  Not only was the performance stunning in its reach and impact, but the play was introduced by an opening act by a Gospel Choir from Morning Star Baptist Church in Mattapan.  Following the play, the playwright anchored a panel discussion of how the themes of the play and of the life of Roland Hayes are relevant to the challenges that Boston faces in addressing lingering aspects of racism.

Let me talk about the play, which is gorgeous in its vision and flawless in its execution.  By looking backward at the life of Roland Hayes - using drama and music - Mr. Beaty compels us to look deeply at our present circumstances and inspires us to dream - as did Mr. Hayes and Dr. King and many others - of a future in which racism need not be an impediment to artistic aspiration and virtuoso levels of accomplishment.  The play is beautifully crafted to use the formidable vocal and acting talents of Elijah Rock to channel the sound, the struggle and the spirit of Roland Hayes.  Mr. Rock is wonderfully supported by the acting and singing of Harriet D. Foy as Angel Mo', Roland's indomitable mother, by the versatile Nahel Joshi as Roland's teacher and a wide variety of other roles and by maestro Jonathan Mastro at the piano.  With great passion, Mr. Mastro played accompaniments to traditional Negro Spirituals, Lieder and Arts Songs, Opera and original music that he composed to tie together these disparate musical genres.

Elijah Rock as Roland Hayes
\Harriett D. Fox as Angel Mo
"Breath & Imagination"
Paramount Theatre
Through February 8
 Mike Ritter/Ritterbin Photography

Entering the Paramount theater, I believe that I was more aware than most of the audience members of the legend of Roland Hayes.  Many years ago I had the privilege of singing in a Gospel Choir in Roxbury.  In the historic Twelfth Baptist Church, I heard many inspiring stories of what a courageous pioneer Roland Hayes had been as an adopted son of Boston.  Yet as the action of the play unfolded, I learned a great deal more about Hayes.  I learned of his life-long struggle to come to grips with his gift of singing and of the tension between him and his mother over whether he was destined for the pulpit or the concert stage.

The arc of the story is a powerful one.  His father died in a factory accident, and his single mother strugglesd to support them, Roland was forced to leave school to work in a factory where he was almost killed in an industrial accident.  His mother believed that God had spared her son so that he could become a preacher, but the shy young man wass reluctant to stand in front of his home church, even to express his natural musical talent.  He eventually found a voice teacher who stretched him and challenged him to learn the classical vocal repertoire, including songs in German, Italian and French.  He wass thwarted in his ability to express the emotions inherent in these songs, until in a dramatic confrontation with his teacher, he was challenged to sing in German about true love and passion in the same way that he was able to express deep emotion when singing a Spiritual.  Mr. Rock's rendering of that German lieder love song was a highlight of the evening.  Another vocal and dramatic highlight was his interpretation of Hayes' iconic rendering of the Spiritual "Were You There?"  I wonder if there was a dry eye in the house.

ArtsEmerson Artistic Director David Dower skillfully directs this production, lovingly curating both the biography and the musicality that Daniel Beaty has written into this play.  He is ably assisted by the simple and elegant Set and Lighting by Alexander V. Nichols, Costumes by Merrily Murray-Walsh, and Sound Design by Brendan Doyle.

At one point in his career, Hayes had made the choice to come to Boston to try to escape the Jim Crow oppression of his native Georgia.  In 1917, he reserved Symphony Hall and he and his mother hand wrote 3,000 invitations to buy tickets to his concert, which played to a sold out house of over 800 souls.  The action of the play begins in 1942.  After a successful career concertizing across Europe and the U.S. and appearing at a Command Performance before the King and Queen of England in Buckingham Palace, he bought the former plantation where his mother had labored as a slave.  His dream was to create an inter-racial music school where he could teach the technique he learned of "Breath & Imagination."  His dream was shattered when his wife and his daughter, Afrika, were arrested for inadvertently sitting in a Whites Only section of a show store.  He and his family returned to Boston, where he died in 1977.

In attendance at Thursday's Opening Night performance was Afrika Hayes, a retired music teacher. She is grateful, along with those of us who watched the play alongside her, for Daniel Beaty's act of dusting off the legacy and memory of Roland Hayes.  His struggles are still our struggles.  In many ways, that Whites Only shoe store in Georgia is only steps away from Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island.

In the words of the playwright, expressing the courage of those fighting racism:

"We danced with the guns pointed at our feet;
We sang with the rope around our necks.
But we danced
And we sang".

Roland Hayes' struggle was for identity as a man and as an artist, and above all, it was a struggle for dignity.  His story should serve as a spark to us all to remind us that the struggle for dignity still continues. And that spark should ignite a fire of determination in each of our souls. And, to quote another son of Boston, "The glow from that fire shall surely light the world."

Run until you are out of breath to catch a performance of this life-changing production of "Breath & Imagination."  It will put a song in your heart and a spring in your step, as well as a fire in your soul.
Years from now, when people talk about this play and this particular production, you will want to be able to answer in the affirmative when they ask you:"Were you there?"



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