Breath & Imagination is a realistic, moving, and very revealing take on what it means to be a black artist in America, both then and now.
Breath & Imagination by Daniel Beaty. Directed by David Dower. At Arts Emerson/Paramount Main Stage, Boston, MA, through February 8.
By Roberta Silman
Roland Hayes is a Boston success story, an African American success story and a musical success story. Born in 1887 in a tiny town called Curryville in Georgia, he was the descendant of slaves and the child of a factory worker and a laundress. After his father died in 1898 because he was denied entrance to a hospital following an accident at the factory, Roland quit school to help his mother Angel Mo’ earn a living. Two years later they decided they would fare better in Chattanooga, Tennessee, just around the time Roland became aware he had a gift for singing. There Roland found Arthur Calhoun, who realized what a superb voice he had and played a recording of the great Enrico Caruso for the adolescent. That was the defining moment and Roland set his star on singing classical opera and lieder, although Angel Mo’ lived in fear that he would become nothing more than a minstrel singer. With the help of other white mentors Roland caught up in his education and enrolled at Fisk University in Nashville where he became a student and a solo tenor with the Fisk Jubilee Singers. On a tour with that group through Massachusetts, Roland made the decision to come to Boston and start his concert career at the age of 24. He also convinced his mother to come with him.
After he produced his own solo concert at Boston’s Symphony Hall in 1917 that was a sell-out, Hayes embarked on a national tour — also self-managed. By 1920 he was receiving good reviews, no longer had to promote himself and went on a European tour where he caught the ear of Sir George Henschel, a former conductor of the Boston Symphony. With Henschel’s guidance he became a well-known recitalist who performed throughout Europe for the royals of many countries and in the United States, doing 80 concerts a year all over the country, until 1950 when he became a voice teacher at Boston College. By then Angel Mo’ had died and he had married Helen Azalda Mann, whom he met while performing at a Hollywood Bowl performance. In 1933 they settled in Brookline after their daughter Afrika was born. He continued performing until 1973 — only four years before his death in 1977.
It was a brilliant career, paving the way for Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson who were born roughly a decade later, and also William Warfield and so many of the opera singers who sang with such success from the 1960s on and are still singing today — singers like Leontyne Price, Grace Bumbry, Denyce Graves, Martina Arroyo, Jessye Norman, and Eric Owens, to name only a few. And a nice, feel good play could have been written to celebrate only the good things that happened to Hayes.
But this is a play written by a young black man who understands what it means to function in a world dominated by white men. As a white Jewish woman I have no idea what it feels like to be inside black skin, and I have experienced nothing comparable to the obstacles faced by Roland and Angel Mo’ and Alzada and Afrika. For that reason I found myself paying very close attention to Daniel Beaty’s fine play Breath & Imagination: Here is a realistic, moving, and very revealing take on what it means to be a black artist in America, both then and now.
Beaty uses as his fulcrum for the play an incident that happened in Rome, Georgia in 1942 when Roland went back to the state with the idea of establishing a school to teach voice to white and black students on the grounds of the plantation where Angel Mo‘ had been born. (I am not sure if this is true or Beaty’s invention, but it fits into the surrounding facts very well.) On that trip Alzada and Afrika go shopping for shoes in the town and mistakenly sit in the white section only. For their error they are thrown out of the store and roughed up and detained in jail.
When Roland protests their treatment, he is beaten by the police and both he and his wife are arrested. This is where the play begins and where it returns again and again; despite Roland’s determination, despite Angel Mo’s fierceness, despite their phenomenal success which unfolds in a series of flashback scenes beginning with his father’s death, we see the scene of his beating by the police several times. We see him “broken,” as one young woman put it in the panel discussion after the play. And, of course, we see the relevance of Roland’s life to what happened in America this summer and fall, what continues to happen all over this country as we seem to be living the civil rights era all over again.
An amalgam of song and speech, Breath & Imagination takes risks with chronology that are for the most part successful. The title role is performed with great skill and verve by Elijah Rock as Hayes, Harriett D. Foy is an excellent and sometimes sly Angel Mo’, and Nehal Joshi rises to the challenge of the bit parts with wit and skill.. But what this production does best is convey Roland’s particular, superb sound (at one point dismissed by him as “Negro sound”). This is largely the result of the splendid work of musical director and accompanist Jonathan Mastro. His choices are wonderful, and sung beautifully by Rock and Foy.
Roland’s voice had universal appeal, that’s why he was famous in his lifetime, why he was honored by the NAACP, and why he was the first African-American to sing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It is one thing to be a pioneer, but if you are a trail-blazer with a first-class talent, then your story takes on even more weight. That Beaty, who is artist-in-residence at Emerson College for the next three years, chose to inaugurate his stay here with this play also speaks volumes. For Hayes’s story is not only an inspiration, but a shocking reminder that the story of race in America goes on and on and on.
Roberta Silman is the author of a story collection, Blood Relations, now available as an ebook, three novels, Boundaries, The Dream Dredger, and Beginning the World Again, and a children’s book, Somebody Else’s Child. A recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, she has published reviews in The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and writes regularly for Arts Fuse. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.