ArtsEmerson’s ’Breath’ is passionate, powerful

Elijah Rock as Roland Hayes and Harriett D. Foy as Angel Mo’ in Daniel Beaty‘s “Breath & Imagination.“ Mike Ritter/Ritterbin Photography

Elijah Rock as Roland Hayes and Harriett D. Foy as Angel Mo’ in Daniel Beaty‘s “Breath & Imagination.“ Mike Ritter/Ritterbin Photography

BOSTON — Roland Hayes was not your typical concert singer.

Even if it were only the fact that he was an African-American, the son of a slave, who grew up in the segregated South to become the first black man to sing as a soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, it would be a great story.
But Hayes had to overcome so much more to become an internationally-acclaimed concert singer performing for royalty, chronicled in Daniel Beaty’s “Breath & Imagination,” now at the Paramount Theatre through Feb. 8 under the auspices of ArtsEmerson.
It all starts with an inspirational, passionate performance by the charismatic Elijah Rock — check him out in several episodes of the latest season of Showtime’s “The Masters of Sex” — as Hayes. There is plenty of music, and Rock handles the vocal requirements admirably, but Hayes the person is what makes the piece special..
“Breath & Imagination” looks back on a young Hayes whose father is killed working in a factory, and Hayes is forced to drop out of school and go to work in the same dangerous, dirty circumstances.
His decision to begin voice lessons at a time when he and his mother were struggling to survive is a turning point , as was his decision in 1905 to audition to study voice at Fisk University — despite his limited sixth-grade education to that point — and where he eventually began to attract notice performing with the Jubilee Singers.
For much of his life, Hayes didn’t get his due as an artist. Many critics dismissed him because he chose to mix his classical works with the gospel and spiritual pieces he sang since he was very young. But his choices served him well because when he was self-producing  his early tours, the black churches were  a strong source of support.
Harriett D. Foy paints a stirring portrait with a warm, heartfelt performance as his loving, devoted, religious mother Angel Mo’, and Nehal Joshi authors a series of well-crafted performances as various characters in Hayes’ life, including his first voice teacher, who accepts one of Hayes’ prized possessions as payment for his services, only to return it later on.
Even as Hayes grew in stature, the body blows kept coming, including an harrowing encounter in 1942 Rome, Georgia, where Hayes’ wife and daughter are accosted and eventually arrested for having the temerity to sit in a whites-only area of a store, and where Hayes himself was beaten.
Despite it all, Rock as Hayes — like another character , the late Louis Zamperini — is ultimately unbroken.
Jonathan Mastro capably serves as accompanist and music director, and also arranged the music and provided additional music.
There’s no mistaking Director David Dower’s passion for the project, eliciting pitch-perfect performances.

“Breath & Imagination” is the story of one man’s determination, a family’s love, and is a history lesson, an entertainment, and a concert rolled up into one, a tribute to a man who kept on coming no matter what life threw at him.

Last Friday’s performance featured an opening act: spoken word poet Vernon Robinson, who performed a funny, poignant work called “If Heaven Were Live on Stage,” a tribute to African-American performers of all eras and genres who have since gone to their reward.
ArtsEmerson presents Daniel Beaty’s “Breath and Imagination.” Directed by David Dower. At the Paramount Theatre through Feb. 8.