When he was younger, the musician Daniel Bernard Roumain says, his first instinct toward law enforcement was apprehension. A Black man of Haitian descent who wore his hair in long, flowing dreadlocks, he knew he was a target for certain police officers.
Some time ago Roumain bounded out of a New York City subway station and came face to face with a policeman coming in the opposite direction. Startled, the officer reflexively reached for his gun.
After bracing for a confrontation, Roumain checked himself.
“I’m Daniel. How are you?” he said, adding that his mother would have expected him to introduce himself. The cop relaxed instantly, explaining that his own mother would have expected the same thing.
“In that moment,” Roumain recalls, “our mothers are speaking through us and protecting us.”
In “The Just and the Blind,” Roumain’s new multimedia theater piece created in collaboration with the playwright and spoken-word artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, it’s the Black fathers who are looking out for their sons. The show, commissioned by Carnegie Hall in 2019, makes its Boston premiere Friday and Saturday at the Emerson Paramount Center, presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston.
Roumain, a classically trained violinist who recently composed the score for the documentary “Ailey,” and Joseph, a former National Poetry Slam champion who serves as a vice president at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., have worked together on a slew of projects over the past decade. In 2017 their opera “We Shall Not Be Moved,” a reflection on the 1985 MOVE bombing in Philadelphia developed in conjunction with the renowned choreographer Bill T. Jones, earned raves in its world premiere.
“The Just and the Blind” began as a series of poetic essays about Joseph’s concerns about racial profiling as his son, M’Kai, began preparing to get his driver’s license. The performance, which encompasses words and music, film, photography, and dance, is centered on many Black families’ grief “in the age of mass incarceration,” Joseph says.
“We both have complex relationships with law enforcement — I’ll say it that way,” says Roumain. “We’ve both had our sons in our cars and been pulled over, several times.”
But the production is a meditation meant for everyone, Joseph says.
“All we want as parents is for our kids to be safe, to feel a sense of being free to thrive,” he says. “There’s something very universal about that.”
Roumain, a part-time Bostonian, keeps a townhome in Norwood to help parent his own son, Zachary, who is 12. He teaches at Arizona State University, where one of his current students is of Ukrainian descent. The war in Ukraine is deeply affecting the young man.
“He’s suffering,” Roumain reports. “He’s putting his emotion and his pain into a piece we’re now working on.”
The theater provides a public space for communities to process their most persistent problems, he says, in a way that invites every voice to participate. At performances of “The Just and the Blind,” he notes, the talkback session sometimes runs longer than the show itself.
“I think you can scale misery,” says Roumain. Which is not to imply that there is nothing uplifting about the show.
“This show at its best is a good and important time for the audience,” he says. “It is entertaining, a good piece of theater. Come and receive whatever you need.”
Joseph’s monologues are like an open letter about America’s complicated relationship with race.
“The epistolary tradition from [James] Baldwin to [Ta-Nehisi] Coates is definitely alive here in this work,” says the writer, who was one of the performers when Coates’s National Book Award-winning “Between the World and Me” made its its debut in a theatrical adaptation at the Apollo Theater in 2018. More broadly, he says, “The Just and the Blind” is an inquiry into the concept of freedom, “and how freedom is legislated, or not.”
Besides Joseph’s words and Roumain’s score, the Boston performances will feature street dancer King Havoc, a key part of Beyoncé’s celebrated Coachella performance from 2018, and jazz singer Debo Ray, who teaches voice at Berklee, her alma mater.
“This isn’t a civics textbook, and it’s not Bloomberg News,” Joseph says. “It’s alive in space. We just don’t have that many moments where we can be politically curious together in public.” This kind of socially conscious production, he says, “helps us get healthier.”
“I don’t use the term ‘preaching to the choir,’ ” he continues. “I talk about ‘galvanizing the committed.’ This is ‘why art’ — because art inspires.”
Roumain agrees that collaborative artworks like “The Just and the Blind” rely on interplay between performers and their audiences, whatever their backgrounds.
“I do feel strongly that as artists, we’re not first responders,” he says. “But we are second, third, and fourth responders.”
Email James Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.
THE JUST AND THE BLIND
Presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston. At Emerson Paramount Center, 559 Washington St., April 1-2. Tickets from $49. celebrityseries.org