The Front Porch Arts Collective raised a few eyebrows this past spring when its name was found in the season announcements of three prominent Boston theater companies: Central Square Theater, Greater Boston Stage Company, and the Lyric Stage, Boston’s oldest professional theater. What was this Front Porch Arts Collective and why did it seem like everyone wanted to work with it?
Formed by two major players of the Boston stage, Dawn M. Simmons (a director and the new executive director of StageSource) and Maurice Emmanuel Parent (an actor, educator, and—now—director), Front Porch is, according to Simmons, “a new black-led theatre company committed to advancing racial equity in Boston through theater.” What’s more, it’s the city’s first black theater company.
There is wonderful harmony to the idea of Boston’s oldest professional theater joining forces with its youngest, and their union has resulted in a first-rate revival of Daniel Beaty’s Breath & Imagination, a biomusical based on the life of Roland Hayes, the first African-American to perform at Boston’s Symphony Hall.
Not only is Breath & Imagination Front Porch’s first-ever production, but it also marks the professional directorial debut of Parent, who has shown here that we may have a formidable new director on our hands. And while this is far from Davron S. Monroe’s first performance, his star turn is so virtuosic that it feels very much like we are seeing him at his full potential for the first time.
Breath & Imagination charts Hayes’s journey from a child born to slaves in Georgia to becoming one of the highest-paid concert singers in the world. In 1917, he famously rented out Symphony Hall for a concert and sold out, turning hundreds of people away at the door.
What Beaty does well in his one-act musical is that he efficiently touches on all of the pivotal moments in Hayes life without becoming Wikipedian, and the fact that the score is made up mostly of Negro spirituals infuses the work with rousing authenticity. Songs like “Plenty Good Room,” “Who’ll Be a Witness for My Lord,” and the spine-tingling “Were You There” are given magnificent treatment here by music director Asher Denburg.
If the skeleton of the story is Hayes’s remarkable talent, then its heart is his relationship with his mother, Angel Mo’, who is played here by a brilliant Yewande Odetoyinbo. Odetoyinbo captures the fear of a woman who finds herself a sudden widow after her husband is denied entry to a hospital for being black, as well as the pain of a mother whose only child leaves her behind to pursue a career path she doesn’t approve of. (She hoped he’d become a preacher; Hayes eventually did come back for his mother, and they moved up to Boston together.)
Even when the musical’s narrative becomes a little repetitive, the tremendous performances keep Breath & Imagination airborne. Doug Gerber is fine as Arthur Calhoun, a Chattanooga choir director who sees something in a young Hayes, and Nile Scott Hawver is impressive in a handful of small roles (and makes one hell of a woman).
But it is Davron S. Monroe who makes Breath & Imagination one of the most unforgettable productions of the year. It is a curious thing that despite his prodigious talent Monroe has been relegated mostly to small, thankless supporting roles over the last few years. He proves here that he’s a bonafide leading man who can carry an entire show on his back without breaking a sweat. From the comedy of a playful, pouty child being dragged to church to the assurance of a world-renowned singer with “the pain and the promise” of his people in his throat, Monroe’s epic portrayal is both divinely touching and unforgettably stirring.
If this is the kind of work that we can expect from Front Porch, I’d say the city of Boston just got a whole hell of a lot richer.
BREATH & IMAGINATION.THROUGH 12.23 AT THE LYRIC STAGE COMPANY, 140 CLARENDON ST., BOSTON. LYRICSTAGE.COM
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.