Boston-based singer and actor Davron S. Monroe can speak personally to the profound impact of people like Roland Hayes, a child of formerly enslaved people in Georgia who became an internationally renowned classical singer.
Monroe was a high school student in his native Florida when an inheritor of Hayes’s legacy, the African-American tenor Dr. William Brown, turned up one day to perform a recital for students.
“It was just amazing to see someone on the stage who was the same color as me, the same background as me, singing this type of music,” Monroe says. “It was amazing and I was kind of awestruck just to see someone who looked like me, doing this.
“That’s what intrigued me. It drew me to it. And here I am.”
Monroe has numerous credits in musical theater as well as singing the operatic repertoire. Now he portrays Hayes in “Breath & Imagination,” Daniel Beaty’s 2013 play about the trailblazing singer and educator, in the first fully staged production by Front Porch Arts Collective.
Like each of the new company’s three plays this season, it’s a co-production with a well-established theater company — in this case, Lyric Stage Company of Boston, where performances begin Friday and continue through Dec. 23.
The show is the professional directing debut of Maurice Emmanuel Parent, a busy actor on the local scene, who co-founded Front Porch alongside Dawn Meredith Simmons, executive director of the theater advocacy group StageSource as well as an accomplished stage director and playwright.
“Breath & Imagination” is a memory play hinging on a confrontation with Georgia police after Hayes’s wife and daughter were arrested for sitting down in the whites-only section of a shoe store, in the days of legally enforced segregation.
In scenes that trace Hayes’s rural upbringing and, eventually, a career that sent him around the globe, Monroe also plays him as a young child, groomed by his mother, the fierce and determined Angel Mo’ (Yewande Odetoyinbo), to sing sacred music of the black church.
As a child, Hayes heard a phonograph of famed Italian tenor Enrico Caruso and became inspired by the tradition of opera and European art song. He sang and studied music at Fisk University in Nashville and relocated to the Boston area, where he continued his studies and built his career. (A Roxbury music school bears his name, and his daughter, Afrika Hayes, continued working as an accompanist at Walnut Hill School and Boston Conservatory after retiring from a career teaching music in the Boston public schools.)
Hayes was noted for incorporating his distinct style as a singer of African-American spiritual music into his interpretation of classical works. A key moment in “Breath & Imagination” comes when he recognizes his individual sound, as a black artist, to be a virtue rather than a quirk to be ironed out in service of sounding like his white predecessors.
His story provides an excellent curtain-raiser for Front Porch, which Parent and Simmons founded two years ago in an effort to give greater voice to people of color in the Boston theater community. A big part of the company’s mission is to re-examine the classics through a black lens.
Parent says he’s seen Boston area theater companies, which are almost universally led by white artistic directors and business managers, make some strides toward increasing the number of people of color onstage and in the audience.
“I certainly have benefited from diverse and non-traditional casting by white-led theater companies for the past number of years,” he says. “But why are we relying on white theater companies to do the work that we desperately want to be done? If I’ve spent 12 years building up the name Maurice Parent, who cares unless you’re willing to do something with that?
“I shouldn’t just sit at my desk and look at my Elliot Norton Awards and pat myself on the back. I’m ready to put that into action to make these theatrical spaces how I hope they can be: more diverse.”
That means more than producing a few plays a year while encouraging established companies to stage the occasional play about black themes. Simmons says structural change in a culturally segregated environment will only come when more people of color are part of local companies’ staff and leadership.
“Who’s in your office? Who’s on your board? It’s one thing to say we want more black and brown and Asian bodies on our stages and in our audience, but if those people aren’t at the table with you making decisions or at least putting ideas forth, [the change is] just surface level,” Simmons says.
As seen in “Breath & Imagination,” Hayes himself set the example that Front Porch wishes to follow, she adds.
“Not only did he break through in this art form of opera but he went back after and made sure he made a place for other black artists coming up. He tutored. He made sure there was a path once he had blazed his own. And that’s what we want to do. We want to make sure there’s a path for other artists to come through.”
Breath & Imagination
A co-production of Front Porch Arts Collective and Lyric Stage Company of Boston. At Lyric Stage Company, 140 Clarendon St., Boston, Nov. 30-Dec. 23. Tickets from $25, 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com
Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at email@example.com.