At one point in Daniel Beaty’s “Breath & Imagination,’’ the classical singer Roland Hayes, memorably portrayed by the gifted Elijah Rock, has grown fed up with the constant discrimination he faces: forced to enter through back doors when he is even allowed to enter performance venues, being paid less than white singers.
So he tells his mother he is going to take a job as a music teacher in a Boston school. But she short-circuits the idea of giving up on his dream by reminding her son of a few important facts: that she was born a slave, that her father was a slave, that Roland’s great-grandfather was whipped almost to the point of death by a slave-master.
“You carry the pain and the promise of your people in your throat,’’ she tells her son. He takes her words to heart, and Hayes carries on with his historic career, eventually describing himself, with pride, as a “continuation’’ of all those who came before him.
One of the strengths of “Breath & Imagination’’ is precisely that it insists on this sort of connection with — and obligation to — the past. Beaty himself has amply fulfilled that obligation by creating this one-act play with music about a breakthrough figure who deserves to be much better known than he is today. Presented by ArtsEmerson, where Beaty is participating in a three-year residency, “Breath & Imagination’’ is at the Paramount Center Mainstage through Feb. 8, in an evocative, often moving production directed by David Dower.
With his richly expressive voice and magnetic stage presence, Rock makes for a compelling Hayes, ranging skillfully from spirituals to art songs to original compositions by Beaty. As the first internationally renowned African-American classical singer, Hayes (1887-1977) notched many firsts during his lifetime. Among them: He was the first African-American to sing at Symphony Hall in Boston. “Breath & Imagination’’ shows us what it took — extraordinary strength of will, uncommon dedication to craft — to get there, to achieve the goals Hayes set for himself, improbable though they were in the early years of the 20th century.
The play begins in 1942, with Hayes in middle age. He has bought the land on the plantation in rural Georgia where his mother was born into slavery, planning to open a music school for black and white students there. But now — angered by the arrest of his wife and daughter for sitting in the whites-only section of a local shoe store — Hayes has changed his mind.
“Breath & Imagination’’ is structured as a series of flashbacks from that moment, with Rock portraying Hayes from boyhood to his mid-50s. The production’s cast of three includes Harriett D. Foy, excellent as Angel Mo’, Hayes’s formidable, deeply religious mother, who at first wants her son to be a preacher, and Nehal Joshi, nimbly shifting among an array of characters, including Roland’s vocal teacher, who tells him: “Own your right to sing these songs.’’
Though the singer’s wife, Helen Alzada (Mann) Hayes, and daughter, Afrika, are alluded to during “Breath & Imagination,’’ they are not seen onstage. (In a lovely touch on opening night, Dower introduced from the audience Afrika Hayes, a piano accompanist for the Boston Conservatory and the Walnut Hill School who is now 81.)
The dialogue is at times too exposition-heavy, and some scenes feel rushed. But Beaty has not aimed for comprehensive biography; his play registers instead as a poetic meditation on a remarkable man and the meaning of his life. Arriving on the heels of a year that raised disturbing questions about racial justice in America, there is, too, a certain contemporary resonance to “Breath & Imagination,’’ especially in the scenes when Hayes is verbally and then physically abused by a police officer.
The set by Alexander V. Nichols features a piano (the accompanist is Jonathan Mastro) and an old-fashioned gramophone, on which Roland first hears a recording by Enrico Caruso. Rock’s expression in that moment is that of a youth transported by the artistry of another — and perhaps glimpsing his own future as an artist for the first time. It’s one of numerous scenes in “Breath & Imagination’’ where we feel the power of song to transcend, at least partly, the wounds of history.