Playwright Daniel Beaty first heard a recording of Roland Hayes singing spirituals when he was an undergraduate at Yale University. It was a revelation. “I was stunned by the beauty of his voice and wanted to learn more about the man behind the voice,’’ Beaty says.
Beaty discovered that Hayes was born in Georgia in 1887, the son of a former slave. He rose to become the first world-renowned African-American classical vocalist, performing for royalty in Europe and breaking the race barrier as the first African-American to sing at Boston’s Symphony Hall. Yet despite his enormous accomplishments and fame during his lifetime, Hayes is not a household name. His legacy is overshadowed by those who followed him, singers like Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson.
“I was struck by the fact that this man was the son of a former slave, who rose to sing before kings and queens, and I became curious about how you become a first,” Beaty says. “He didn’t have a model to follow. He admired [operatic tenor Enrico] Caruso, but he was a black man trying to find his way. That is what struck me most, the concept of being the first. And I was shocked that people didn’t know his name.”
That may be about to change in Boston. “Breath & Imagination,” Beaty’s musical about Hayes, makes its New England premiere at the Paramount Center Mainstage this week. Produced by ArtsEmerson, it begins previews Tuesday and runs through Feb. 8. The one-act play tells the story of how Hayes overcame adversity and rose to international prominence. Most of the tale is biographical, but Beaty took creative license and embellished certain details for dramatic effect. The story unfolds as a memory play, with important people from Hayes’s life appearing to him as he prepares for the opening of a music school. The most prominent is his mother, Angel Mo’, who raised her son alone after her husband died in a factory accident. One actor plays all the other characters, including King George V, a policeman, and two white voice teachers who mentored Hayes
Actor Elijah Rock played Hayes in previous productions in Cleveland and Los Angeles, and he is re-creating the role for ArtsEmerson. He says audience members have been stunned that they had never heard of Hayes, who died on New Year’s Day in 1977. “They say, ‘Oh my God, how could I not know this beautiful story?’ They feel gratitude, but a little bit of sadness.”
Unlike Anderson and Robeson, Hayes was not a political figure. He didn’t march or protest. His music was his activism.
His daughter, Afrika Hayes, a retired Boston public school music teacher, remembers him as a quiet man who expressed himself through music. “My father was not a political artist,’’ she says. “He didn’t grandstand.”
Afrika Hayes, at 81, is still a piano accompanist for the Walnut Hill School and the Boston Conservatory. She has long wished that more people knew her father’s legacy, especially in Boston, where he made his home as an adult. (There is a music school named after him in Roxbury.) She has read the play and attended a rehearsal, but she won’t see it until the official opening on Thursday night. “The play is an education for everybody — old, young, black, white, green, whatever,’’ she says. “This was a man from humble origins with a limited education. He did it all himself. He didn’t toot his own horn, and he lived to sing. That was his message to the world: ‘Don’t give up.’ ’’
The production is part of a larger effort by ArtsEmerson to use the arts to foster civic dialogue and social change. Beaty has begun a three-year residency called “I Dream: Boston,” an ambitious citywide project that aims to bring diverse members of the community together. Beaty, who is also an actor and singer, has published two books and is a sought-after motivational speaker whose motto is “Transforming Pain to Power.” He will conduct workshops and community meetings as a way to bring diverse groups together, to hear their frustrations, and to search for solutions.
“Breath & Imagination” kicks off the project, and Beaty took advantage of his residency to make changes to the play. In the original script, the show’s pianist doubled as a performer. The ArtsEmerson production has a separate pianist, allowing actor Nehal Joshi to play multiple characters without having to play the piano at the same time.
Director David Dower, who is ArtsEmerson’s newly appointed artistic director, is putting his own stamp on the play. Initially, a few of his ideas were confusing for Rock, who played the role slightly differently in previous productions. During a recent rehearsal at the Paramount Center, he and Dower stopped to discuss how to sing the music, which includes classical opera, spirituals, and original compositions. Rock said, “I have two versions in my head.” Dower put his hands to Rock’s temple, as if he were removing the previous version. “I’ll take one,’’ he said. Music director Jonathan Mastro laughed and said, “Just make sure you take the right one.”
Harriet D. Foy, who plays Angel Mo’, is delving deep into the complex role of Hayes’s mother, who had a dedicated but complicated relationship with her only child. “It’s like any parent-child relationship,” Foy says. “They go through a gamut of emotions from a big fight, to parting, to acceptance, which is what we do in life. There is love there, and she wants the best for him. She wants him to be a preacher — my grandfather was a preacher, and sometimes that was the best path. But she also can’t deny the gift that he has been given from God.”
The mother and the other characters arise from Hayes’s memory at a pivotal moment late in his life. He has a decision to make, and the folks from his past appear to guide him. “His relationship with his mother was his primary and most influential relationship,” Beaty says. “There is something about the depth of and complexity of the love between a mother and son that I would love for people to explore while watching one man’s journey.”
Afrika Hayes never met her grandmother Angel Mo’, who died before she was born. “I’m glad I didn’t, because she seemed to be very, very strict,’’ she says. “I probably would have said, ‘I don’t like you,’ or something silly like that.”
And she doesn’t mind that Beaty has taken creative license for the sake of the drama. “He got the person properly,’’ she says. “But the funny part about it is that Elijah is a baritone, and my father was a tenor.”
In the play, Hayes has a run-in with a brutal policeman after his wife and daughter are arrested for sitting in the white section of a shoe store. It didn’t happen that way, though. In real life, Hayes and his wife were arrested while Afrika, then 6, watched. “The policeman went up to my father and said, ‘There has been a charge against you, boy.’ Of course, my father was 50 years old. My father said he didn’t understand, and the policeman socked him in the jaw.”
That particular tale resonates for the creative team, who connect it with the current protests over police action in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City. “I think there will be some resonance in that people will pick up on the issue of police brutality as it pertains to black men,” Beaty says. “But for me, the deeper resonance is that despite the challenge and opposition, there is something about the human spirit that allowed a black man to achieve what some thought was impossible.”
Rock and the members of the creative team are reminded of a popular symbol currently being used to protest the death of Eric Garner, who died after telling a New York police officer who had his arm around his neck that he couldn’t breathe. “I am thinking of the hashtag, ‘I can’t breathe,’ ” Rock explains. “This play will hopefully show us that we all need to breathe. The police need to breathe. The urban folks who have been suffocating need to breathe.”
And the title of the show has taken on a profound significance for the creative team. Dower puts it this way: “We are trying to put the audience in a space where they can move from ‘I can’t breathe’ to breath and imagination.”