‘Porgy and Bess’ Revived at ETC
Playwright Daniel Beaty first heard a recording of Roland Hayes singing spirituals when he was an undergraduate at Yale University. It was a revelation. “I was stunned by the beauty of his voice and wanted to learn more about the man behind the voice,’’ Beaty says.
Beaty discovered that Hayes was born in Georgia in 1887, the son of a former slave. He rose to become the first world-renowned African-American classical vocalist, performing for royalty in Europe and breaking the race barrier as the first African-American to sing at Boston’s Symphony Hall. Yet despite his enormous accomplishments and fame during his lifetime, Hayes is not a household name. His legacy is overshadowed by those who followed him, singers like Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson.
That may be about to change in Boston. “Breath & Imagination,” Beaty’s musical about Hayes, makes its New England premiere at the Paramount Center Mainstage this week. Produced by ArtsEmerson, it begins previews Tuesday and runs through Feb. 8. The one-act play tells the story of how Hayes overcame adversity and rose to international prominence. Most of the tale is biographical, but Beaty took creative license and embellished certain details for dramatic effect. The story unfolds as a memory play, with important people from Hayes’s life appearing to him as he prepares for the opening of a music school. The most prominent is his mother, Angel Mo’, who raised her son alone after her husband died in a factory accident. One actor plays all the other characters, including King George V, a policeman, and two white voice teachers who mentored Hayes.
Actor Elijah Rock played Hayes in previous productions in Cleveland and Los Angeles, and he is re-creating the role for ArtsEmerson. He says audience members have been stunned that they had never heard of Hayes, who died on New Year’s Day in 1977. “They say, ‘Oh my God, how could I not know this beautiful story?’ They feel gratitude, but a little bit of sadness.”
Unlike Anderson and Robeson, Hayes was not a political figure. He didn’t march or protest. His music was his activism.
His daughter, Afrika Hayes, a retired Boston public school music teacher, remembers him as a quiet man who expressed himself through music. “My father was not a political artist,’’ she says. “He didn’t grandstand.”
Afrika Hayes, at 81, is still a piano accompanist for the Walnut Hill School and the Boston Conservatory. She has long wished that more people knew her father’s legacy, especially in Boston, where he made his home as an adult. (There is a music school named after him in Roxbury.) She has read the play and attended a rehearsal, but she won’t see it until the official opening on Thursday night. “The play is an education for everybody — old, young, black, white, green, whatever,’’ she says. “This was a man from humble origins with a limited education. He did it all himself. He didn’t toot his own horn, and he lived to sing. That was his message to the world: ‘Don’t give up.’ ’’
The production is part of a larger effort by ArtsEmerson to use the arts to foster civic dialogue and social change. Beaty has begun a three-year residency called “I Dream: Boston,” an ambitious citywide project that aims to bring diverse members of the community together. Beaty, who is also an actor and singer, has published two books and is a sought-after motivational speaker whose motto is “Transforming Pain to Power.” He will conduct workshops and community meetings as a way to bring diverse groups together, to hear their frustrations, and to search for solutions.
“Breath & Imagination” kicks off the project, and Beaty took advantage of his residency to make changes to the play. In the original script, the show’s pianist doubled as a performer. The ArtsEmerson production has a separate pianist, allowing actor Nehal Joshi to play multiple characters without having to play the piano at the same time.
Director David Dower, who is ArtsEmerson’s newly appointed artistic director, is putting his own stamp on the play. Initially, a few of his ideas were confusing for Rock, who played the role slightly differently in previous productions. During a recent rehearsal at the Paramount Center, he and Dower stopped to discuss how to sing the music, which includes classical opera, spirituals, and original compositions. Rock said, “I have two versions in my head.” Dower put his hands to Rock’s temple, as if he were removing the previous version. “I’ll take one,’’ he said. Music director Jonathan Mastro laughed and said, “Just make sure you take the right one.”
Harriet D. Foy, who plays Angel Mo’, is delving deep into the complex role of Hayes’s mother, who had a dedicated but complicated relationship with her only child. “It’s like any parent-child relationship,” Foy says. “They go through a gamut of emotions from a big fight, to parting, to acceptance, which is what we do in life. There is love there, and she wants the best for him. She wants him to be a preacher — my grandfather was a preacher, and sometimes that was the best path. But she also can’t deny the gift that he has been given from God.”
The mother and the other characters arise from Hayes’s memory at a pivotal moment late in his life. He has a decision to make, and the folks from his past appear to guide him. “His relationship with his mother was his primary and most influential relationship,” Beaty says. “There is something about the depth of and complexity of the love between a mother and son that I would love for people to explore while watching one man’s journey.”
Afrika Hayes never met her grandmother Angel Mo’, who died before she was born. “I’m glad I didn’t, because she seemed to be very, very strict,’’ she says. “I probably would have said, ‘I don’t like you,’ or something silly like that.”
And she doesn’t mind that Beaty has taken creative license for the sake of the drama. “He got the person properly,’’ she says. “But the funny part about it is that Elijah is a baritone, and my father was a tenor.”
In the play, Hayes has a run-in with a brutal policeman after his wife and daughter are arrested for sitting in the white section of a shoe store. It didn’t happen that way, though. In real life, Hayes and his wife were arrested while Afrika, then 6, watched. “The policeman went up to my father and said, ‘There has been a charge against you, boy.’ Of course, my father was 50 years old. My father said he didn’t understand, and the policeman socked him in the jaw.”
That particular tale resonates for the creative team, who connect it with the current protests over police action in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City. “I think there will be some resonance in that people will pick up on the issue of police brutality as it pertains to black men,” Beaty says. “But for me, the deeper resonance is that despite the challenge and opposition, there is something about the human spirit that allowed a black man to achieve what some thought was impossible.”
Rock and the members of the creative team are reminded of a popular symbol currently being used to protest the death of Eric Garner, who died after telling a New York police officer who had his arm around his neck that he couldn’t breathe. “I am thinking of the hashtag, ‘I can’t breathe,’ ” Rock explains. “This play will hopefully show us that we all need to breathe. The police need to breathe. The urban folks who have been suffocating need to breathe.”
And the title of the show has taken on a profound significance for the creative team. Dower puts it this way: “We are trying to put the audience in a space where they can move from ‘I can’t breathe’ to breath and imagination.”
Patti Hartigan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Guided by McClain’s fluid staging, Rock is nothing short of glorious, possessing a rich vocal instrument and strong stalwart demeanor that could very well have been that of Hayes or any other black man who had to constantly fight an impossible battle. He brings plenty of spirit to the fore.”
Photo by Michael Lamont
TO READ BEVERLY HILLS CANYON NEWS Interview with ELIJAH ROCK Click Link below:
HELLO AMERICA!—Be on the lookout for Elijah Rock who is an astounding, compelling serious actor, singer and comedian. He is one of those gifted artists who arrived in Hollywood unafraid of hard work and a sense of reality that it takes to be successful in the toughest game in the world.
MSJ: Looking at your reel, you have an enormous rage as an actor-entertainer. When did you first realize that you had such a need, a passion to perform in film or on stage?
ER: I started performing when I was very young, in my community church, in Cleveland, OH. That’s where my mother first noticed that I hada gift and passion for singing. Reinforced by the music teacher in my elementary and junior high school, I was accepted into the Cleveland Opera Children’s Chorus and the Cleveland Orchestra Children’s Chorus. Meanwhile at school, I was performing in Choir and even played Snoopy in the musical “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown.” This diversity of experiences was the foundation for what has followed. As a youth, I never thought much about film. That evolved much later in my career. Singing and acting on a stage was my home away from home.
MSJ: Who were some of the entertainers or actors who influenced you most when you began your career and why?
ER: My greatest influences are Paul Robeson, Bert Williams, Step and Fetchit, Sammy Davis, Jr. Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, James Brown, Franco Corelli, Al Pachino and Denzel Washington. I know this sounds like a crazy range of entertainers, but classical music was a huge influence in my life. I even played classical guitar and cello as a youth. I’ve always had a passion for Vaudeville and the history of the theatre artists across the board: music, stage and cinema. And being a classically trained vocalist in bel canto and in the theatre at the Cleveland Karamu House, I would always be drawn to the great performing artists of past generations.
MSJ: Realizing how difficult it is to get doors open to an actor, did you at first hesitate and then decided to simply go for it.
ER: I was fortunate to excel in the arts while being a youth. I was able to attend Interlochen ArtsAcademy for two summers in high school before going to The Cleveland Institute of Music where I studied voice. When I decided to make a go of it professionally, I had no reservations because I organically felt that I had what it took to succeed to be a working entertainer. I think I knew it was my purpose before I understood the full meaning of what having a strong purpose was all about. I just knew that I wanted to develop into a well-rounded artist who had a diverse skill set, like an amalgamation of the kinds of talents my influences had. I truly had a strong idea of who I wanted to model myself after and almost unconsciously, that is what has happened in more ways than I can even articulate at the moment. I am grateful that my talents allow me to create in very diverse ways, which makes the kinds of characters I am attracted to very exciting.
MSJ: What was the first show you appeared in and how did it make you feel? And what kind of roles are you drawn to? I ask this because of the enormous dramatic and comic range you definitely have.
ER: Wow, well since I went to an all-boy elementary school, the first amateur show was Charlott’s Webb in the fifth grade. And yes, I played Charlotte! I felt proud and affirmed in my ability to convey a conflicted spider. LOL It was the first time I experienced the extraordinary sensation of storytelling. I am drawn to complex characters, whether dramatic or comedic. Being an observer of humanity and living my own life, there is so much to draw from. I just want to be challenged so I can continue to grow as an artist…I suppose that will be the case for the course of my life. Like many actors, I was the class clown, thus comedy comes pretty naturally. I approach Drama in the same way…LIFE has all the answers.
MSJ: How has Hollywood changed your perspective as an entertainer? Are you forced to accept assignments that you feel are beneath you as an actor or comedian?
ER: I realized early on, that entertainment is a business. It’s the business of SHOW. So, I knew that to be successful enough to make a healthy living, I would need to learn how the biz works. As much as a fine artist I am, I know that for an artist to economically sustain and grow in their business, monetization is a requirement. I think I get the fundamentals of how Hollywoodworks which happens over time by being here and navigating the waters. It’s a tricky place to be if you don’t have a strong purpose as an entertainer. They say that as many people arrive today to pursue a career in Hollywood, the same number of people are packing their bags to leave. During a rehearsal in one of the first equity shows I did at The Great Lakes Theater Festival, in Cleveland, an actor said to me, “Remember kid, overnight success in Hollywood is ten years.” There’s a lot of truth in that, and his words have stuck with me. I never take on a role or create in any way that I feel is beneath me because I only work in the spirit of excellence. I will pass on a project that I feel is not where my heart lies. To do so, would be an injustice to myself and to my craft. For me, it’s about building a body of work that I can be proud of and inspired by. I believe in creating with intention.
MSJ: What kind of challenge are you still looking forward to handle as a performer? Is it more as a comic or as a dramatic actor since it is obvious that you easily can handle both?
ER: I just want to play the characters that I’m supposed to play with the talents and skill-set I have. I want to be challenged to do great work with the amazing artists in cinema and on stage. Great storytelling is where it’s all at for me, from a film, to communicating the lyric of a song or melody, this is the spirit truly living and what we as humans need to soulvive. I say “soulvive” because art touches the SOUL in the most profound ways. It’s part of our human nature. Thus when we walk outside and experience the beauty of the trees, flowers, ocean, wildlife; they naturally connect with our inner being. Our job as Artists is to reconnect people to their feelings and that’s what keeps us in touch with “feeling” alive…our reason for living. We are here to Be our natural selves but the Artist is most responsible to reflect life back to the living.
MSJ: Have you changed very much since those earlier days hoping to be recognized as some one special? If so, how so?
ER: I think I’ve grown as an Artist for sure and of course I’ve thought along the way at times, “When and Where will my talents be recognized at the next level?” For someone who loves his craft, I think I just wanted to stay busy creating, even though it was also tough dealing with the inconsistencies of my financial domain. I’d heard people say, “Acting is for rich kids who can be supported by their families for the years it takes for them to make a living.” I think that’s why so many people quit, because it’s just too difficult to undergo the stress of financial starvation for years, before things start to really happen. I empathize with them because I get it. I am grateful I found ways to stick it out and for the support I cultivated around me. I’m not where I envision to be yet, but I feel exciting opportunities coming ahead. I think a big change happened a few years ago, when I wrote down my mission/vision statement. Somehow it gave my career a direction and blueprint for me to follow.
MSJ: When are you the happiest? Is it when you are facing an audience or creating a character in front of a camera?
ER: I love it All. I’m happiest, creating in the moment, nothing like it in the world. It’s like being water with no directional path. Simply water that is allowed to flow. Both disciplines are unique and thrilling in their own ways. They are just so very different. Nothing compares with a live audience in terms of immediate feedback. It is in some ways the most organic, relational experience you can have with the receiver of your story; it is the raw essence of storytelling in all of it’s purity, since the very dawn of humanity. Film, is a first cousin and embodies nuances that are remarkable. It’s amazing how film can touch us in visceral ways as well. You have a moving picture accompanied by sound. In film, the camera reads the intimacy of your thoughts. On stage you have a fourth wall to play to.
MSJ: Check Elijah Rock out. He is quite a guy — an extraordinary talent!
EAST WEST PLAYERS INTERVIEWS ELIJAH ROCK
Elijah Rock as Anatoly in CHESS
Tell us about the character you play, and how can you relate to him/her. Is there any part of Chess that resonates with you as an actor, or personally?
I play “Antatoly Sergievsky, The Russian.” I relate to the complexity of his human conflict. For some reason, I am always drawn to characters that embody a kind of visceral dexterity. I like to be challenged and I almost revel in the exercise of finding new dimensions in the human experience to explore. I think we all can relate in some way to Chess because every choice or move we make in life has an effect; some predictable and some not.
What challenges, if any, have you faced with playing your character?
To represent the stoicism of Anatoly’s Russian temperament has been the most challenging. He has to show a powerful range of emotion, yet he is very still and rigid in his body language.
What distinguishes this production or role you have compared to other characters you’ve played in the past?
I’ve never performed with a mixed cast of this nature before, especially with my Asian brothers and sisters, so I jumped at this opportunity to work with Tim Dang and the renown East West Players. I had heard of their amazing reputation but never thought I’d work there until they decided to cast a multi-cultural cast of Chess. I guess we’ve made history and my hat goes off to Tim for stepping outside the box of traditional casting.
Also, this role is very demanding vocally; this is one of the most demanding roles for a baritone in a musical. I don’t think I’ve ever had to be so disciplined in keeping my voice in optimum condition. I am grateful every performance for my classical training. It has prepared me totally for this role of a lifetime.
What made you want to pursue acting?
For me, it all began with singing in my church at an early age, along with having a strong theater arts department in my school. It was something I excelled at and received the attention and validation that every child craves. Fortunately, I had my mother’s support and encouragement and a community around me to push me further along my path. I’ve always known this is what I wanted to do with my life.
Have you ever faced adversity in your career, and if so, how?
Of course! What career in show business has not? Adversity is what makes you a stronger person and gives you experiences by which you can draw from as an entertainer. Art reflects life and life reflects art. I did not get jobs I thought I was perfect for. I was turned down by agents that I thought should represent me. People don’t realize in showbiz there are more “no’s” than “yes’s”. People just see the “yes’s” and the “yes’s”are all that matter in the end. Having a deep sense of purpose for this vocation is what gets me through the valleys.
Any advice you’d give to actors just starting out?
Understand true success in show business is a marathon, not a sprint. Take your time and find who you are as an artist and what sets you apart and gives you a noticeable distinguishable quality. Talent is the foundation that you must have, but then there are the connections and ability to market your skill set to the industry. Just know if you build something special and sustainable, they will come. Fame should never be the aim, but moreover, to become a self-realized artist. Have a vision and a vision statement because success always follows a blueprint.
What’s in store for you after Chess?
On Saturday, July 6th, I will be headlining the KJAZZ (88.1) FM JAZZFEST at the Promenade at the Howard Hughes Center. I will be performing with my 6-piece little big band. Showtime will be at 6-8pm. I sing, tap and will take you back to the days of Swing Era but with a new twist! I’ve even hired Austin Yancey from ourChess orchestra to join me on this performance. See the KJAZZ website for details: http://jazzandblues.org/features/2013/05/westsideJazzfest/
Anything else you’d like to share?
I also play a lead supporting role is a feature film called Salvation Street that will be coming out in December 2013. It’s my second film with producer Brad Wilson. And with the recent signing with Resolution Talent, I am excited about the new opportunities that lie ahead. In addition to film and TV, my next dream is to grace the stages of the Mark Taper Forum, The Ahmanson and Broadway! I believe that every great entertainer must always refine and exalt their art on the theater stage!
How can fans stay updated about your projects?
Website: www.elijahrock.net (Join my e-mail list via my website to receive my monthly newsletter)