Entertainment » Theatre

Maurice Emmanuel Parent Draws Deep for 'Breath & Imagination'

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Nov 15, 2018

Maurice Emmanuel Parent has plenty on his plate these days. He's recently finished up a run as Banquo in Actor Shakespeare Project's world premiere production of a "new translation," by Migdalia Cruz, of the great tragedy; he's preparing his directorial debut in "Breath & Imagination," a play with music about the great singer (and longtime Boston resident) Roland Hayes, which the Lyric Stage Company is co-producing with the brand-new Front Porch Arts Collective; and he's working as one of the founding artists behind that very same Front Porch Arts Collective, which has won a residency with Central Square Theater and offers Boston a professional troupe dedicated to telling the stories of black and brown people (and producing the work of artists of color).

It's no wonder, then, that when EDGE caught up with him, Parent was dashing between places. Even so, he graciously took the time to fill us in on what the Front Porch Arts Collective — or, "The Porch," as he calls it — is up to now and in the near term, the story of Roland Hayes and his unstoppable artistry, and the events that are taking place around the show.

EDGE: "Breath & Imagination" will be The Front Porch Art Collective's first fully staged production, is that correct?

Maurice Emmanuel Parent: It is, yes. We're super-excited. It's great to be with the Lyric on this, as this is where we got the idea for The Porch. Then we got the residency at Central Square.

EDGE: That's right, I remember you telling me in our last interview that the idea for The Front Porch Arts Collective came about when you were doing "Saturday Night, Sunday Morning" at the Lyric. How did the Lyric end up coming on board to co-produce "Breath & Imagination?"

Maurice Emmanuel Parent: During the reading series, [Lyric Stage Company Managing Director] Matt Chapuran came to one of the readings and invited me to lunch. He said, "Tell me more about this project," because he liked the idea of The Porch. That conversation led to the idea of collaboration. We had already spoken to Central Square Theater about a residency and co-production, and then the conversation with the Lyric went so well we started playing with titles to think about [producing].

Part of the mission of The Porch is we'd like to do either a play with music or a musical every year. I'd done musicals at the Lyric, and we just kinda went to the idea of a musical or plays with music, and this play came across someone's table. We all read it and thought it was perfect. It's the story of a black man who uses his art, his dedication to craft, and his passion to overcome racist situations, to craft the life that he wanted, and he didn't let his race be an obstacle in any way. He fought all the obstacles that he was faced with at that time to be a success, but also to thrive as an artist. That's so in line with the mission of The Porch.

EDGE: It also seems appropriate since Roland Hayes lived and worked in Boston.

Maurice Emmanuel Parent: Yes, and it goes well with the Lyric's mission of diverse casting over the last few years. The play focuses on a man of color and his mother. And then, also, the Lyric's commitment to the Boston area; Roland's family are still here and alive. They are in touch with [the Lyric's publicist]. They're coming [to see the play]. We're really honoring his connection to the greater Boston area. Supporting local talent of color is part of The Porch's Mission

EDGE: Is it more correct to describe "Breath & Imagination" as a musical, or as a play with music?

Maurice Emmanuel Parent: I would say it is a play with a ton of music. Most of the singing is diegetic. Most musicals are written with the idea of the songs replacing dialogue in a scenes and the characters aren't aware that they're singing; they're singing because they can't express what they need to express with just dialogue. For most of the singing in this play Roland is aware that he's singing. He's giving concerts, or he's taking a lesson. There are a couple of songs where he's singing instead of speaking in the more traditional musical sense, but the majority of the singing is him aware of it. And most of Angel Mo's [played by Yewande Odetoyinbo] singing is of the musical form. Some might call it a musical; some might call it a play with singing; for my money it's mostly a play with singing

EDGE: Will "Breath & Imagination" feature any songs that have an especial connection to or association with Hayes — like, anything you'd call his "greatest hits?"

Maurice Emmanuel Parent: He has a book of spirituals, so there are some of those in the play. One particular classical piece is "Una Furtiva Lagrima," famously sung by Enrico Caruso. There's this beautiful moment in the play when he hears Caruso singing this song, and that's when he realizes that he can be an artist of that caliber despite his race, he wanted to be seen and paid the same and respected at the same level as artists who were not African American, even though this was early 1900s segregated America. He hears that voice and realizes that he can be an artist in the same way Caruso is, and he sings that song in the show.

EDGE: This is also your professional directing debut. Is this a passion project? Or did the dice just roll such that this would be your first directorial effort?

Maurice Emmanuel Parent: It was in conversation, and myself, Dawn [Meredith Simmons, Artistic Director for The Front Porch Collective], Spiro [Veloudos, Producing Artistic Director for the Lyric Stage Company], and Matt [Chapurin] were just talking about titles, and the topic of directors came up in this conversation. There was another musical we were looking at that I knew better, and I just put my name forward to direct. Once this title came up, I read it said I would be interested in directing it. The main thing is... Dawn has directed at the Lyric much more, but just because it's a Porch show doesn't automatically mean Dawn has to direct it or I have to direct it. It's more about what's best for the project. So in the conversation with Dawn and Spiro, I said, "I'd be interested, but if you feel I'm not ready I'll understand." They said, "Actually, we would love to encourage you to make your directorial debut with this." They were all very supportive. Spiro has been coming to rehearsals, and Dawn is popping by when she's not rehearsing. It's been a very collaborative and supportive way for me to make my directorial debut.

EDGE: In addition to the play, there are a couple of concurrent events also taking place. Would you say a little about those?

Maurice Emmanuel Parent: Yes, we are working with the organization Castle of Our Skins to do "Ode to Hayes," a two-concert series that celebrates Roland Hayes. Before two of the matinee shows, on Sunday, Dec. 9, and again on Sunday, Dec. 23, they will be a special guest in a half-hour long concert, from 1 — 1:30 pm. Then there'll be a break between the concert and the show.

We're doing an event in Brookline on the 18th honoring Hayes' status as a Brookline resident for so long, where performers from the show are going to meet some community members,do some scenes from the show and talk about Hayes' legacy in Brookline and the work he did. The shows are welcoming to all, but we definitely try to engage people of color to come see the show.

And then — this one is still in the works, and we're not sure it's gong to happen, but we're looking to partner with a group and on one Sunday have an open air market of small black businesses, where they can have stands and sell their wares, with the idea of getting ready for Christmas and buying presents. We're still working out the details for that, and we're not sure it's going to happen, but that's a desire of ours and that's what we're working toward.

EDGE: And community involvement being part of the mission for The Front Porch Arts Collective, that's right up your alley.

Maurice Emmanuel Parent: It really is, and there's a education program, too, where they're getting young people into the space and teaching them what Roald Hayes' role was in introducing spirituals to the classical world. He wasn't the only one to do that, but he was the one credited with making spirituals so highly acclaimed, And we're also teaching young people to write their own spirituals, and that will be part of those concerts — they'll actually be singing music written by participants in the education program.

EDGE: Davron S. Monroe plays Hayes, and I believe this is going to be his first starring role — is that correct?

Maurice Emmanuel Parent: He was Coalhouse in a production of "Ragtime" recently, and he's done a couple others, but I think this is — not to sound arrogant about it, but I think this is going to be his highest profile lead in Boston. The show basically is him and his mother, and he sings and acts, and I don't think he leaves the stage at all. He definitely has done much classical and oratorio work, but in terms of Equity theater in Boston, I think this is his biggest role.

EDGE: I know from seeing him in other musicals what a fine singer he is. Was he the actor you wanted from the first, or how did he come to be cast in "Breath & Imagination?"

Maurice Emmanuel Parent: He was, but honestly, I wanted to make it fair, so we still had auditions. We saw many wonderful classical singers, many talented people. But you can't just be an amazing singer, you have to also be an amazing actor. You have to be able to sing the classical repertoire; you have to be able to sing spirituals; and, like I said, there are some songs that have a more musical theater feel. And you have to be a transformational actor. So, he was the first person [we thought of], and he also has an intimate relationship with the Lyric, so he seemed like a great fit, but I just wanted to audition people. But Davron came in and he confirmed all of our thoughts, and he is absolutely perfect for the role.

The beauty of it is that he can sing the classical music and has beautiful classic form, and he has a vocal facility that can mold and shape into whatever the music requires in that moment, and he's a great actor. We're really fortunate to have him. It's a privilege to work with him.

EDGE: Last time we spoke you mentioned that Central Square Theater is going to co-produce Marcus Gardley's "Black Odyssey" with The Front Porch Arts Collective next year. Is that production now pretty well lined up?

Maurice Emmanuel Parent: It is! Thanks for asking — yes, it is. Marcus came about a month ago, and he spent a week with us. He did a workshop where he interviewed black Bostonians to learn more about the history and the culture of black Boston, and he re-wrote "Black Odyssey" and set it here. That is the version that we are going to be producing: A version that is specifically tailored to Boston history and legacy and Boston audiences. We're all really excited about that. It's actually been renamed "Black Odyssey Boston."

EDGE: There has been plenty of talk about theater — and other forms of art — as resistance to the current political and social climate. Is that also part of The Front Porch Arts Collective philosophy?

Maurice Emmanuel Parent: I think about the history of art and how I've dedicated my life to this, and Roland has a moment [in "Breath & Imagination"] where he realizes, "I could be an artist; I am an artist, and I can make my life about this art." That's a big moment in every artist's career. And there's another moment when he says — I'm paraphrasing here — "It was never my desire to organize a sit-in or a protest. My job has always been about art." For me, that's so profound, because I think that making art unapologetically about black people, about people of color, that in and of itself is a form of protest, just like in the show. Roland makes art despite what society says he should do, or should be — what society tries to tell him he is, and is not. That's a big part of the mission of The Porch. Existing is a form of protest.

But then, to take it to the next level, I'm not going to put it out of our possibility to flat-out protest, because I also think we are in an age where you do need to make clear stands on certain issues, and you may need to be more vocal about it. You may need to show up in a physical space. You may need to rally. Our business is to use theater to break down racial barriers in Boston. The Porch is all about making art for people of color, but — you know, theater comes in so many different forms. It could be theater to do some sort of protest art in the street. Who knows? I love the endless possibilities that theater makes, and an organization are embracing those possibilities.

"Breath & Imagination" runs Nov. 30 — Dec. 23. For tickets and more information, please go to https://www.lyricstage.com/productions/breath-imagination/

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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