It’s the last run-through of Breath & Imagination before the weekend’s tech and dress rehearsals. The house lights remain on, and random objects stand in for many of the props while actors take their places still dressed in street clothes—save for a long skirt here, or a tuxedo jacket there.
Then Elijah Rock steps forward, his voice rising and filling the empty venue right up to the rafters, and brings Roland Hayes to life. His singing transcends the less-than-optimal setting: It demands not only to be heard, but to be felt.
“I believe it’s no mistake that Roland would beckon me to portray him,” Rock says, fresh off of the stage after rehearsals. He speaks softly and evenly, no doubt to preserve his voice, and periodically sips from a large Thermos of pungent tea. “Every time I do the show, my understanding of him gets deeper. Not just from an autobiographical perspective, but an emotional and spiritual one.”
This year marks Rock’s third run as Roland Hayes, a role for which he received the NAACP Theatre Award for Best Performer in 2014. The play, written by acclaimed actor, singer, and wordsmith Daniel Beaty, kicks off Beaty’s residency project I Dream: Boston, an initiative that seeks to create transformative works of art that address issues of racial inequality and spark productive conversation and long-lasting change.
“We’re imagining creative ways to initiate conversations, resolve conflicts, and inspire new views and experiences of our oneness and our humanity,” Rock says. “This story does that. That’s Daniel’s work, and that’s my work. I was attracted to Daniel and I was attracted to this work because that’s what I teach in my own life.”
Beyond the moving rags-to-riches story, Breath & Imagination touches on a pivotal moment in Hayes’ own life, when his wife and daughter were arrested in Georgia for sitting in the “whites only” section of a shoe store. Hayes himself was brutally beaten by an officer for protesting their arrest, and the experience would forever alter him. Anyone that’s been following the news of late knows that this, sadly, isn’t an issue specific to the mid-20th century.
“I think that there’s a great discourse on equality and race in this story,” Rock says. “It transcends generations, it transcends periods. It’s a story about a human being who overcomes.”
At the core of Breath & Imagination is a tale of transformation, of triumph in the face of impossible adversity. Rock’s voice acts as an emotional thruster propelling the narrative forward, while pulling the listener along the highs and lows of his journey.
Hayes was the first African-American concert artist to rise to international acclaim—and he had to forge his path alone. “You have to realize that Roland never heard a black classical singer. [Italian operatic tenor] Caruso was the only one,” Rock says. “For him to have had the imagination that he could be the first, to do something that had never been done before, is profound. And to be, at one point, the highest paid concert singer of any race, in the world …” Rock laughs, gently. “I mean, if that’s not an inspiring story, I just don’t know what is.”
Woven throughout the beautiful juxtaposition of Southern spirituals and rich opera, Breath & Imagination tells the story of a mother and son, of a first-generation free man, of what it means not just to be an artist, but to be an artist of color in a world that built on racial stereotypes and oppression.
“We’ve always had to dance with a gun pointed at our feet, always had to sing with a rope around our necks,” Hayes’ mother, Angel Mo’ (played by Harriett D. Foy), says, bolstering her son in a moment of hopelessness. “Still we dance. Still we sing.”
ARTSEMERSON PRESENTS: BREATH & IMAGINATION. PARAMOUNT CENTER, 559 WASHINGTON ST., BOSTON. ONGOING THROUGH SUNDAY 2/08. FOR SHOWTIMES AND TICKET PRICES, VISIT ARTSEMERSON.ORG