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Breadth and imagination are precisely what is lacking in the Hartford Stage’s world premiere production of Daniel Beaty’s “Breath and Imagination,” a musically-inspired glimpse into the life of Roland Hayes, the first African-American vocalist to conquer the classical music stage in the United States and Europe, while introducing the Negro spiritual to the international repertoire.
Oh, Beaty’s intentions are quite admirable. And the creative team assembled goes to extraordinary lengths to present a theatrically rich evening of equal parts music and drama. But it seems as if the evening cannot make up its mind whether it is essentially a high quality musical recital with some marvelous renditions of traditional spirituals and familiar operatic solos or whether it is meant to be a biographical drama of the life and struggles of the Georgia-born vocalist.
Admittedly, Beaty has done a major service by restoring Hayes to his rightful place in the pantheon of American music and recognized the impact that his groundwork laid for the generations of African-American singers who followed in his footsteps. However, he ultimately gives his character’s life short shrift. Beaty only superficially explores the personality and personal life of this groundbreaking figure. In fact, he concentrates only on one aspect of Hayes’ life, albeit a significant one, that of his relationship with his indomitable, widowed mother, his precious Angel Mo’, who was born a slave. True she was a major force in her son’s life, responsible for introducing him to the spirituals that would become an important part of his repertoire and, because of her profound Christian faith, for instilling in him the values that would govern his remarkable career.
At approximately an hour and 35 minutes or so, including a 15-minute intermission, “Breath and Imagination” is probably not capable of providing a really in-depth look into the long and complicated life of Roland Hayes. Incorporating so much traditional and classical music into the brief evening, along with some new songs and recicitive composed by the playwright, even lessens the opportunity to present a fully-formed picture of the African-American singer. Instead key moments and feelings are quickly communicated in a kind of theatrical shorthand that glosses over the depths of emotion in the man.
Fortunately the music, as selected by Beaty from decades of Hayes’ career, is quite beautiful, especially as performed by the magnificent Jubilant Sykes as Hayes and the powerful Kecia Lewis as Angel Mo’. Sykes, a commanding baritone by training, easily manages Hayes’s tenor range with little evidence of strain and delivers his numbers with confidence and awe, conveying Hayes’s deep respect for the music he sings and his continual gratitude for the opportunity to sing these songs so often barred from African-American vocalists. As a result, we get an idea of what an evening listening to Hayes might have been like with its mix of the Negro spirituals with the revered classical pieces from the European greats.
Thanks to Lewis, the evening gets the crowd-pleasing element of a strong African-American female voice to project the rousing chords and shattering emotion of the spirituals. And they sure are audience pleasing.
If just for the musical performances, aided strategically by the multi-talented accompanist Tom Frey, who is called upon to also play a variety of other roles during the performance, the evening would be well worth a visit to Hartford Stage.
Disappointingly, though the play touches upon the struggles that Hayes faced whether it be his mother’s opposition to his singing career or the indignities he suffered in a Jim Crow culture, Beaty’s approach barely scrapes the surface of his two main character’s feelings and, as a result, they come off as stereotypical rather than unique. We miss out on important events in his life, such as how he met his wife and his feelings about his daughter, or collaborative relationships with his contemporary classical composers. This is quite frustrating for someone wanting to get a bit into the core of Hayes’s character.
One serious misstep in the script deals with the circumstances surrounding Hayes’ departure from Fisk College, where his vocal prowess earned him a full scholarship. Beaty has Hayes refer to his leaving as a “dismissal” which at least initially implies that there may be some discriminatory undertones to the situation. When the real reason is revealed, the negative nature of the departure continues to be embraced, when instead Hayes should indeed be expressing extreme gratitude and the playwright should also acknowledge how Hayes was not left to shift for himself, but indeed received some additional assistance moving forward. The treatment of Hayes’s benefactor, Miss Robinson, by the playwright is nothing but shameful.
In addition, certain details about Fisk are withheld from the audience, such as the exact nature of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, which would have added a deeper emotional dimension to the evening.
Darko Tresnjak, Hartford Stage’s Artistic Director, has painstakingly directed the material that has been presented to him by the playwright. Because of the streamlined version of Hayes’ life and the frequent diversions to the music helps assure that audience attention never flags and that the musical and acting talents of the three performers onstage are appropriately showcased. It was a wise decision by Tresjnak and his scenic designer David P. Gordon to place the piano and accompanist Frey on a revolving carpet center stage to allow for greater enjoyment of Sykes’ stunning musical moments. Gordon’s set evokes the Georgia home of Hayes’ mother with its sturdy wooden walls and strong wide beams, while being adaptable to depict the globe-trotting aspects of Hayes’s burgeoning career.
All three of the performers evidence seasoned acting chops as well. Sykes must take Hayes from a child through this old age in Georgia, where he has returned to open an integrated music school for young people in the actual house in which his mother once served as a slave. I especially liked his ability to convey the restlessness and naivety of a youngster, as well as his defiant take on a piece of classical music that he felt society was not interested in hearing him perform. Lewis must convey Angel Mo’s actions and motivations in an even more abbreviated shorthand, complicated by frequent changes in thinking or behavior that are often not explained in Beatty’s text. Fortunately, she is able to manage some of the extremes of the woman’s behavior, from a stern, judging mother figure to a collaborative partner in Hayes’ young career. Frey, in addition to his role at the piano, steps in to play at least seven additional characters, men, women, black and white, including a police officer violently harassing Hayes and his family in 1942 Georgia, a welcoming King George V of England, his helpful mentor Professor Calhoun, the aforementioned Miss Robinson at Fisk, and Hayes’ own father.
York Kennedy’s lighting undergirds the play’s movement through time and space, cueing the audience to changes in locale and time, while Fabio Toblini’s costumes evoke both the poverty experienced by Hayes in his younger years and the formal world in which he maneuvered at the top of his career.
Beaty builds the play around a perhaps fictional racial incident that convinced Hayes to close up his school toward the end of his life, which Hayes reveals at a concert/lecture welcoming the first class to the school. This device stretches credulity as one would fully expect the students to gasp and have a strongly negative announcement to his decision to close, but Beaty has Hayes merely continue forward with his speech and reminiscences, while theoretically panicked students should be squirming uncomfortably in their seats.
But if one has been a fan of Daniel Beaty from his “Resurrection” several years ago at Hartford Stage, then this play is a must, in order to watch his progression as a playwright. It’s also a great opportunity to listen to some great music, a superb mash-up of spirituals and classic pieces, delivered by two remarkable singers. But as a look into the life of Roland Hayes, it’s merely a partial introduction. There is obviously a lot more to this man and his family, but you won’t find that detail here.
“Breath and Imagination” plays at Hartford Stage through February 9. For tickets and information, call the Hartford Stage Box Office at 860.527.5151 or visit their website at www.hartfordstage.org.