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January 14, 2015 | Theatre,

The gift of Breath & Imagination


I often am struck by the vulnerability and generosity of performers. As I enter the second week of rehearsal here for Breath & Imagination at ArtsEmerson, I am powerfully aware of what it takes to be an artist and how little of what it takes is ever visible to the audience.


Breath & Imagination shares some of that with you. But only if you come. Like a tree falling in a forest, the gift of a live performance cannot land unless you are there to hear it.


Breath & Imagination is about the challenges that formed one of the great artists of the 20th century, a Boston hero, and the first African American vocalist of international renown. Roland Hayes was born the son of slaves and wound up singing before the crown heads of Europe. He began his solo career on the stage of Boston’s Symphony Hall, which he rented himself because no hall would present a classical Negro singer. So, on the one hand, we have a story that resonates very deeply with the culture: the daily and centuries-long struggles of African American men to claim their dignity and dreams in our society. Hayes opened the door that Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson would later struggle to walk through. In fact, it was Hayes’ refusal to perform one of his concerts at Constitution Hall unless blacks and whites could sit together that precipitated the standoff that forced Marian Anderson to sing her famous concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.


At the same time, it is about the struggles of any artist to find their voice, to remain grounded in themselves as life buffets and batters them, and to overcome through breath and imagination. Every artist is, to some extent, forged by their life experiences. Roland Hayes caught the spirit in his mother’s church, found his calling in a recording of the voice of Enrico Caruso, and found his range through making the whole musical repertoire of his day his own. This show features spirituals, gospel, work songs, Italian arias, German art songs, and three tremendous- generous, vulnerable, crafted, and gifted- vocalists, along with a fresh new piano score from Jonathan Mastro.


It is a privilege to be in rehearsal every day with Elijah Rock, Harriett D. Foy, and Nehal Joshi as we attempt to meet the challenge playwright Daniel Beaty has created for us: to expose the raw nerve and unguarded heart of a performer in front of his audience. So much music. So much vulnerability. So much craft. So much spirit. Breath & Imagination is a beautiful play to work on.


I hope you will join us at the theater so we can share its many gifts with you.

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