With its first ‘Breath,’ Front Porch troupe scores
BOSTON – For Roland Hayes, the journey getting there was almost a bigger story than what he accomplished when he finally reached the top of the mountain.
The son of former slaves who grew up in the segregated South threw off his shackles to become a renowned singer, performing at Symphony Hall and for British royalty,
His story is told in the Lyric Stage Company of Boston and the Front Porch Arts Collective co-production of Daniel Beaty’s “Breath & Imagination: The Story of Roland Hayes,” now being presented through Dec. 23 at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston.
The production is the first in a series for the Front Porch Arts Collective, co-founded by Dawn M. Simmons and Maurice Emmanuel Parent, a new black-led theater company committed to advancing racial equity in Boston through theater. For their first season, the troupe is partnering with three Greater Boston theaters to present a season named “Re imagining the Classics.”
Davron S. Monroe has become a mainstay on local stages in recent years and his tour de force performance as Roland Hayes is yet another showcase for his talents as an actor and musician.
His vocal instrument is given a full workout in this role as he bridges the gap between formal classical pieces and the spirituals and gospel songs he grew up singing in the black churches where his beloved mother, the devoted, loving Angel Mo’ (Yewande Odetoyinbo), herself a woman of strong faith, also gloriously sang The Lord’s praises.
Under the accompaniment of music director Asher Denburg, Monroe moves effortlessly from such spiritual standards such as “Were You There” and “My God Is So High” to German art songs and operatic Italian arias.
“Breath & Imagination” is also a showcase for Odetoyinbo, whose powerful vocal instrument rings to the rafters of the intimate Lyric Stage venue.
Because he didn’t focus exclusively on classical opices, for much of his life Hayes didn’t get his due – especially in this country – for being the artist he eventually became.
He did make pioneering appearances in this city. In 1917, no manager would sponsor his efforts to sing at Symphony Hall in Boston, so he rented the hall himself and sold tickets, many of them to church groups who knew his voice well.
He again appeared at Symphony Hall as a soloist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1923, the first African-American to perform as a solo artists with a major American orchestra. He toured Europe extensively, performing for King George V at Buckingham Palace.
He eventually became a Brookline resident for four decades before dying in Boston in 1977.
Just growing up poor on a farm in a segregated Georgia was a life-threatening chore at every turn. Hayes’ father was killed in a factory accident while the boy was young, and Hayes was forced to drop out of school and go to work in the same type of dangerous factory.
His decision to begin voice lessons at a time when he and his mother were struggling to survive is a turning poin , 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 by performing with the Jubilee Singers.
Nile Scott Hawyer is a theatrical handyman in a variety of supporting roles, including a kindly faculty member at Fisk who gives greatly of herself; King George V, for whom Hayes performed ; and a racist police officer. Doug Gerber is Mr. Calhoun, Hayes’ first vocal coach, who uses Caruso as an example of Hayes’ aspirations of being “an artist” and accepts a legacy from Hayes in exchange for tutelage.
Monroe conveys the pain as, even after his success, the body blows kept coming. He recounts an incident in Rome Georgia in 1942 when his wife and daughters were accosted and eventually arrested for sitting in a whites-only section of a store; Hayes himself was beaten when he went to the police to inquire about them.
It led him to make a painful decision: to pull the plug on a music school for blacks and whites on the very land where Angel Mo’ had worked as a slave.
Parent. an award-winning actor himself, is making his professional directorial debut, and he has made the job easier fir himself with adroit casting and a strong team of designers. “Breath & Imagination” is the gripping true story not only of one man’s determination to succeed no matter what obstacle life threw at him, but a story of a family’s love. KIt serves as a history lesson, an entertainment, and because of the talents of its principals, a concert, all rolled up into one.
Using “Breath & Imagination” as a springboard, it’s easy to imagine the Front Porch Arts Collaborative going on to other successes.
The Lyric Stage Company of Boston and the Front Porch Arts Collective co-production of Daniel Beaty’s “Breath & Imagination: The Story of Roland Hayes.” Directed by Maurice Emmanuel Parent. Scenic design by Baron E. Pugh. Costume design by Elisabetta Polito. Lighting design by Aja M. Jackson. Sound design by David Wilson. At the Lyric Stage Company of Boston through Dec. 23.lyricstage.com.