Presented by ArtsEmerson
Created/written by Daniel Beaty
Directed by David Dower
Music directed/accompanied/arranged/additional music by Jonathan Mastro
Review by Kitty Drexel
(Boston, MA) Black lives matter: Racism is alive and thriving everywhere. “But it’s 2015,” people will cry. Right, it’s 2015 and racism is still alive and thriving in Boston. To prove a point: check out which art makes the most money. For an institution greatly concerned with artistic expression, remaining significant in an ever modernizing world, and pushing boundaries, opera tends to steer clear of non-White people. Opera includes POCs in its casting but its stories are mostly about White people. Roland Hayes, first Black man to sing a concert at Symphony Hall would be an excellent subject for an opera. Thank the great goodness that there’s Breath & Imagination to educate the masses.
In Daniel Beaty’s operatic musical with acting interludes, Roland Hayes (Elijah Rock) welcomes the audience to the opening of his school (fictional) for Black and White students in Georgia. It is 1942 and racial tensions in the South are violent near to explosive. Mr. Hayes is questioning his judgement. Between monologues to the audience are vignettes about his personal journey from childhood to his career as the first Black professional concert artist and composer to achieve international fame on his merits. We meet his Ma, Angel Mo’ (Harriett D. Foy) and other characters (all played by Nehal Joshi) ArtsEmerson has an excellent biography here. Wikipedia also has one. Mr. Hayes is all over Spotify and Youtube. It is amazing what he was able to accomplish.
Mr. Rock is an exquisite performer. He has the vocal clarity and expression of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and stunning good looks all his own. Rock’s portrayal of Hayes had the audience laughing and crying in equal measure. He found great humor in the face of atrocious racism and sweet joy in melancholy spirituals. His version of “Lord, I Want to be A Christian” was so tender there were sniffles echoing through the theater. He was an entertaining character, an inspiring artist, and a gracious host. I am humbled by the range and dedication Mr. Rock displayed.
Performers who have the opportunity to attend, should. Opera singers should make a point of attending with the understanding that although Rock’s performance is not strictly operatic it is held to a standard that opera performers should hope to emulate. Mr. Hayes is a part of our history we should remember for always. Mr. Rock communicates clearly his text and elicits a strong reaction from reaction from his audience. Throw stones when you can do that, too.
Harriett D. Foy’s mezzo has a rich timbre. Although she struggled with the higher notes, her interpretation radiated with passion and grace.
Nehal Joshi has an excellent range as an actor. With simple props and costume pieces, he could flip characters on a dime. His is an excellent acting technique to watch.
The set design looks the way Heaven would look if it were a concert hall. The baby grand is beautifully tuned, the blonde wood paneling reflects the light to make the stage look warm, the golden curtain look like halos. It’s practically perfect.
Racism is a central theme to Breath & Imagination. It is presented truthfully and unabashedly. While times have changed, racism is still as common as tap water. The challenges Mr. Hayes faced are still faced daily by people of color. There are people who deny this and they are wrong. People looking for an excuse to remain ignorant or content in their casual racism should avoid this production. People seeking to understand and enrich will enjoy this production.
In which I digress:
Creator Daniel Beaty has created I Dream. This is an excellent way is support and give back.
Being an ally means showing up and showing up; to support by way of one’s presence at events intended to show solidarity with victims of systematic intolerance and inequality.
The best way to show support in the face of injustice and inequality is to do as the victims would have you do (see above). Follow their example.
It is never the responsibility of the victim to console the manic yet well-meaning sympathizer. White people, if you’re troubled by the events concerning Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Carner, Aiyana Stanley–Jones, etc. talk to other White people. Be an activist and ally by discussing these and more travesties within the White community. The Black community has their own grieving to do right now.