|Elijah Rock as Roland Hayes in "Breath & Imagination"|
(photo: Mike Ritter/Ritterbin Photography)
Arts Emerson’s latest offering has deep and broad Boston roots. “Breath and Imagination”, the musical play by Daniel Beaty, is the true storytelling of the life and career of Roland Hayes (Elijah Rock). Hayes, the son of a slave, became the first world-renowned African American classical vocalist, based in Boston with an impressive history of Symphony Hall appearances. As directed here by David Dower, the city can once again be duly proud of its connection with the famed performer.
The play begins in 1942 at the Georgian plantation home of Hayes’ slave grandparents, where he planned to open a mixed-race music school. Then there are flashbacks to early childhood (Hayes having been born in 1887, moving about thirteen years later to Tennessee), with his beloved mother Fanny or “Angel Mo’” (Harriet D. Foy). Several encounters with music teachers and others (all played by Nehal Joshi) follow, especially after Hayes is exposed to the voice of Caruso singing from “Elixir of Love”. The story takes us to the point in his career where he moved to Boston, then finally Brookline. During a European tour in 1923, he was first booed and hissed for ten minutes until he began to sing and won over the audience. In 1917 he sold out his self-arranged Symphony Hall concert. He also Taught at Boston College. He died in 1977 and was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Dorchester.
The performances are uniformly exceptional. Rock is true to his name, anchoring the production with a fine voice and dignified bearing. Foy is a great foil for some of Hayes’ fantasies, a real steel magnolia if ever there was one. Joshi is astonishingly versatile, playing males and females, humans and horses (well, at least one, Molly by name). And the piano accompaniment by Jonathan Mastro is involved in every emotional moment. The writing of the play by Beaty is sometimes on the purple side (“you carry the pain and the purpose of our people in your throat”), but by and large avoids the overly sentimental hagiography it could easily have become. This production by ArtsEmerson boasts not just Accompaniment but also Music Direction, Arrangements and Additional Music by Mastro. The Scenic and Lighting Design is by Alexander V. Nichols, with Costume Design by Merrily Murray-Walsh and Sound Design by Brendan Doyle, all serving the story well. As we’re told at the beginning of the performance, this is a presentation in the manner of “call and respond”, and the audience surely did that. This is a great African-American story. It’s a great American story. Amen.