Hayes Follows Heart in ArtsEmerson’s ‘Breath & Imagination’ (4.5 Stars)

BREATH & IMAGINATION – Written by Daniel Beaty; Directed by David Dower; Jonathan Mastro, Music Director/Accompanist/Arrangements and Additional Music; Alexander V. Nichols, Scenic/Lighting Design; Merrily Murray-Walsh, Costume Design; Brendan Doyle, Sound Design; Presented by ArtsEmerson: The World On Stage at the Emerson/Paramount Center in Boston through February 8.

Breath. An important part of yoga, exercise, dancing, and the phrase, “I can’t breathe.” Its significance to life is essential, and its connection to police brutality and profiling of African Americans cannot be understated. BREATH & IMAGINATION is a musical drama about the first African American concert artist to achieve national and international fame, Roland Hayes. He used his breath to forge his own path, stand up for civil rights, and sing his way to becoming an outstanding lyric tenor. And yes, there was a moment in the production where I couldn’t breathe and it involved his wife and daughter being arrested for sitting in the “whites only” section of a shoe store in Georgia. BREATH & IMAGINATION explores classism, racism, the relationship of mother and son, and the mentorship of teacher and student.

The only props on stage are two chairs, a polished phonograph, and a grand piano played by Jonathan Mastro. The Music Director is also the accompanist on stage for almost the entire performance, doing his own acting through facial expressions and well-timed entrances and exits. While the staging is deceptively simple, the use of lighting is brilliant and its three actors are amazing in bringing to life Roland Hayes’s story with music, humor, and sensitivity.

Elijah Rock plays Roland Hayes who was born in 1887 Georgia to parents who were farmers on the plantation that once enslaved his mother. The play opens with dates, ages, and school grades marking time as musical numbers and his passionate, lyrical singing unfolds. It’s brilliant. Roland’s father guides him through nature, Roland’s first music teacher, as he listens to the songs of birds. At 11, his father dies and his mother moves to Chattanooga. The Negro Spirituals of his mother’s church encourage him to pursue singing. At 12, Roland meets a teacher who plays a recording of the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, and from there he is hooked. At 16, in fifth grade, he pays $1.00 a week for singing lessons by staking his father’s pocket watch. Roland finishes his formal education in sixth grade. In 1911, Roland joins the Jubilee Singers and practices his craft through many public performances. Eventually, he tours in Europe and performs at Buckingham Palace only to return to Boston. On November 16, 1923, Roland Hayes makes his official debut at Boston’s Symphony Hall, the first African American soloist to appear.

Harriett D. Foy plays Angel Mo, Elijah’s loving, firm, and religious mother who wants her son to become a preacher, so he leaves home telling her that he doesn’t need to go to church to feel God, he can feel Him in the woods. Later, when he has earned her respect for his chosen career path, she gives him advice, “If the songs are in another language, then you need to make the emotions even stronger, so that the audience knows what you’re saying.” Foy’s singing balances Rock’s voice, and her comedic talent, with its great quips such as, “I’m your mother, not your wife,” keeps the audience chuckling.

Nehal Joshi plays Teacher and Others. When I saw “Others” in the program notes, I wondered what that meant, and then I saw and heard. Joshi is a maestro with sound effects and caricatures. The audience can see him behind the sheer curtain, and, like the Wizard of Oz, he makes magic by mimicking bird songs, the sound of rain falling, and the hoof beats of horses. He also plays every other character, including an elderly female teacher with horn-rimmed glasses wearing a crocheted shawl. The ending holds a surprise from these “Others” as Joshi’s enormous talent is revealed during Roland Hays’s summary.

This 90-minute production has no intermission. BREATH & IMAGINATION is the perfect show for Black History Month. It’s a story about the importance of family and responsibility versus following your own dreams. Is it a disgrace to not live up to your parent’s expectations, or is it a disgrace to not follow your own vision? Even teenagers can enjoy this clearly written story, its music, and the comedy. The discrimination that Roland Hayes faced during this dark time in United States history is brought up-to-date by a shocking ending connecting directly to our breath again. For more information, go to: https://artsemerson.org/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::permalink=breath_and_imagination