A new black-led Boston theater company prepares its inaugural season
The hard truth about Boston is that it’s a fairly racist city. It’s evident in its social dynamics and made painfully (in)visible in its cultural scene. At least Dawn M. Simmons, the artistic director of the city’s first black-led professional theater company in nearly a decade, thinks so. With the Front Porch Arts Collective, she and a team of “black and brown” theater artists seek to inject the city’s stages with the stories of people of color, on their own terms.
“I think black, brown, and Asian artists have all felt marginalized or tokenized at some point, whether unintentionally or not,” Simmons said during a phone interview. “We’ve all come together through that because we’re all trying to make more theater. There need to be more opportunities for us to be together to tell our stories and have people see the humanizing effects of that storytelling.”
Simmons first came up with the idea for the collective in 2015, during a conversation with Maurice Emmanuel Parent, another eminent black theater artist in Boston. Outlining a vision that ensured the works they produced would be inclusive, intersectional, and financially sound for the artists involved, they partnered with the Lyric Stage, Central Square Theater, and Greater Boston Stage companies for their inaugural 2018-2019 season.
“It’s hard for a small, new company to get money. Funders in Boston will usually only fund projects that are well-established,” Simmons said. “These companies effectively turned over their budget to us so that we could take the shows and the artists working on them, and really drive the artistic product. You’ll see our season within the seasons of these three companies, which is amazing.”
Following a 2017-2018 reading series centered around the work of Marcus Gardley, their first official production will be Daniel Beaty’s Breath & Imagination at the Lyric Stage Company. Directed by Parent, the “play with music” traces the career of Roland Hayes, arguably the first world-renowned black classical singer.
“As part of our mission to support local artists of color, we’re reimagining how Roland Hayes not only thrived, but excelled, at an art form that was not made with him in mind,” Parent said over the phone. “He found success in the form but he never denied his blackness, for lack of a better term. It was unique for him to unite the sounds of spirituals and gospel to the classical world. He would always sing spirituals as part of his concerts, since spirituals are the classics of black people.”
This being Parent’s directorial debut, he finds parallels between the collective’s goal to include diverse voices and his approach to the production. Speaking about what precedent the production will set for the rest of the company’s works, he defers to the material and artists around him.
“I think it’s less about creating a stamp and more about the work that we want to create in our space,” Parent said. “It’s a different satisfaction knowing that you are setting up a world and leading the artists to do their best. You have to respect the artistry of everyone at the table but also give them what they need to set them on the journey you think the piece needs to take.”
Despite being a gifted musical theater actor himself, Parent opted to provide another actor the opportunity to showcase their talent. Davron S. Monroe, an actor and classically trained opera singer, was chosen to portray Hayes, who became a Boston legend, himself, through numerous local engagements and a main residence in Brookline.
“It’s a wonderful feeling, being able to tell the story of someone who looks like me,” Monroe said during a phone conversation. “Being able to tell his story, in his city and have it be with a person-of-color theater company makes for a lot of firsts and feels great.”
A Boston stage veteran himself—this marks his 14th appearance in six years with Lyric Stage alone—Monroe finds hope in the collective’s mission to amplify these voices onstage and backstage.
“Not a lot of people of color are having these opportunities onstage here,” Monroe said. “A lot of companies do colorblind and inclusive casting but, most often, the stories of persons of color themselves are not being told. We’re often involved in someone else’s story, but not a story of our own. There’s a need for this type of theater company to tell stories that are relevant to the person-of-color community.”
With Parent describing their “ideal season” as comprising a musical, a reimagined classic, and a modern play, Breath & Imagination, which combines all three, makes for a perfect opening production. Their next two projects are Gardley’s Black Odyssey, a revision of Homer’s epic set in Gulf War-era Boston, and Catherine Bush’s interpretation of The Three Musketeers, which honors and emphasizes Alexandre Dumas’ Haitian heritage.
“We are looking to demonstrate the soul and the heart, the intellect and the everyday lives of black and brown people in America,” Simmons said of their programming. “It’s slow going but we’re going to make it happen, and I have no doubt about that.”
A similar sense of joyous creation and unity is felt among these three artists, who, in their quickness to heap praise on each others’ talent, reflect the goals of the Front Porch Arts Collective.
“It’s a gathering place, a welcoming place,” Parent said of its name. “We want to be very clear about our mission. We want to break down racial barriers in Boston, increase diversity in the audience, onstage, backstage, in offices and in boardrooms. We want everyone to know that they’re welcome and encouraged to come.”
BREATH & IMAGINATION. THROUGH 12.23 AT THE LYRIC STAGE. 140 CLARENDON ST., BOSTON. LYRICSTAGE.COM