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A forte in fortitude

‘Breath and Imagination’ tells the story of classical black singer Roland Hayes

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
A forte in fortitude
Maurice Doug and Davron Nile in “Breath and Imagination.” Photo: Courtesy Lyric Stage Company

Through Dec. 23, Lyric Stage Company and The Front Porch Arts Collective will be sharing the musical story of Roland Hayes, one of the world’s first renowned African American classical vocalists. A longtime resident of Brookline, Hayes overcame countless boundaries in pursuit of his passion. “Breath and Imagination” explores those trials and triumphs.

Maurice Doug and Davron Nile in “Breath and Imagination.” Photo: Courtesy Lyric Stage Company

Maurice Doug and Davron Nile in “Breath and Imagination.” Photo: Courtesy Lyric Stage Company

The show follows Hayes’ journey from a plantation in Georgia to classical concert halls around the globe. Here in Boston, he was the first person of color to sing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

“No one person’s story is more important than another,” says Davron S. Monroe, who plays Hayes in the production. “It’s a special drive for me because it’s the story of a person of color and those are usually left out.”

Not only was Hayes a talented musician, he was an early advocate for equal pay among races and was known to turn down gigs that wouldn’t pay him as much as his white counterparts. He also boldly incorporated spirituals into his classical sets. Monroe trained as a classical musician and says that Hayes’ “My God is so High” was the first song he sang solo during college. Monroe says he relates to Hayes’ story in many ways. 

Monroe, dramaturg Pascale Florestal and director Maurice Emmanuel Parent researched Hayes’ life extensively while preparing for the production. Part of this effort included visiting Hayes’ former house in Brookline and speaking with his family, who still resides in Boston. In 2015, ArtsEmerson performed the show and the Hayes family made minor edits to the script based on their relationship to Roland. That edited script is what Parent uses for this production.

“Breath and Imagination” rings as relevant as ever in its depiction of how Hayes followed his passion despite the racism and violence in his path. Parent says there’s a scene of police brutality juxtaposed with the singing of a spiritual that’s particularly contemporary and powerful. He says, “We should all be outraged when we see behaviors repeated that have been used to oppress black people for centuries.”

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This is Parent’s professional directorial debut. He also serves as the executive director of The Front Porch Arts Collective, a black-led Boston-based theater company promoting racial equity in the arts. In many ways Hayes embodies that message with his commitment to his craft and to equal pay for it. “He made it by not denying himself, not denying his black voice. He infused it into this other art form,” says Parent.

This season, Front Porch partners with three local theater groups to produce shows about the black experience and performed by actors of color. “It brings a face and a voice to people of color,” says Monroe. “It allows people of color to feel more included on stage.”