‘Breath & Imagination’ — and virtuosity, too — at Lyric Stage
It’s been pretty clear for years that no actor in Boston musical theater sings better than Davron S. Monroe.
But if there were any lingering doubts on that score, they should be put to rest by Monroe’s virtuosic performance in Daniel Beaty’s “Breath & Imagination’’ as Boston tenor Roland Hayes, a son of former slaves who used his glorious voice to topple color barriers on concert stages in the early 20th century.
Under the direction of Maurice Emmanuel Parent, Monroe utilizes his own vocal prowess to carry a production that seldom goes long without a song from him as it roams episodically through Hayes’s remarkable life. Monroe brings a combination of elegantly expressive artistry and emotional clarity to his performance of traditional spirituals like “Were You There,’’ “Plenty Good Room,’’ and “My God Is So High,’’ as well as to German art songs and operatic arias such as Donizetti’s “Una furtiva lagrima’’ (a spellbinding rendition).
The man he is portraying richly deserves to be remembered, and it was here in Boston that Hayes made history: In 1917, he became the first African-American to give a recital at Symphony Hall, after renting the hall himself, and his 1923 appearance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra made him the first African-American artist to perform solo with a major US orchestra. Hayes died in Boston in 1977 after living in Brookline for more than four decades.
A memory play with music that was previously presented by ArtsEmerson with a different cast, “Breath & Imagination’’ opens in Georgia in 1942, where Hayes is encountering racism in its rawest form. His wife and daughter have been arrested for sitting in the “whites-only’’ section of a shoe store, and Hayes has been beaten by police when he went to see them. (Nile Scott Hawver portrays a police officer and several other characters.) Angry and shaken, Hayes announces that he will not go ahead with plans to open a music school for black and white students on the plantation where his mother, Angel Mo’, was once a slave.
Vividly portrayed by Yewande Odetoyinbo, Angel Mo’ is a Bible-quoting powerhouse who acts as goad and conscience to her son. Though joyful at seeing him lift his voice in sacred song at their church, Angel Mo’ is initially skeptical of Roland’s desire to transfer his talents to secular music. After he hears a scratchy recording by Enrico Caruso of “Una furtiva lagrima,’’ the young Hayes is determined to acquire the classical training that will make him capable of creating that kind of beauty in sound. After a year of study, though, he laments to his voice teacher (Doug Gerber) that: “I don’t know how to make my voice fit these songs.’’ Replies the teacher: “Then make the songs fit your voice. Own your right to sing these songs.’’
Hayes does, only to be worn down by the discrimination he encounters: being paid lower fees than white singers and being forced to enter concert venues through the back door. It is Angel Mo’ who keeps him from abandoning his dream of a concert career at a crucial juncture, telling him: “You carry the pain and the promise of your people in your throat. It is who you are.’’
Beyond its high quality, “Breath & Imagination’’ is notable for a couple of welcome firsts. It’s the first fully staged production by the new Front Porch Arts Collective, presented in collaboration with Lyric Stage Company of Boston, and it represents the professional directing debut of Parent, a highly regarded actor. Front Porch (whose artistic director is Dawn Meredith Simmons) is described as “a black and brown-led theatre company’’ with a mission to advance “racial equity in Boston through theater’’ and “serve communities of color and produce art that is inclusive of all communities.’’
“Breath & Imagination’’ is a very encouraging debut for Parent, who displays a sensitive hand with material that requires it; for Front Porch, which has two more co-productions with established companies already lined up; and for Boston-area theater generally, which has need of the kind of artists, stories, and voices — in the broadest sense — that the collective can help bring to the fore.
BREATH & IMAGINATION
Created by Daniel Beaty. Directed by Maurice Emmanuel Parent. Music director, Asher Denburg. Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston and the Front Porch Arts Collective. At Lyric Stage through Dec. 23. Tickets from $25, 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com