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Cleveland Play House production of ‘Breath and Imagination’ sings!

Scenes from the Cleveland Play House production of "Breath and Imagination" now playing through March 9, 2014 at the Allen Theatre at PlayhouseSquare.
Scenes from the Cleveland Play House production of "Breath and Imagination" now playing through March 9, 2014 at the Allen Theatre at PlayhouseSquare.
Roger Mastroianni

Breath and Imagination


“Breath and Imagination” (the current Cleveland Play House production now playing at the Allen Theatre at PlayhouseSquare) does what it promises. It takes your breath away and makes your imagination soar. The show tells the story of Roland Hayes (1887-1977) who is considered the first African-American male concert artist and his struggles against prejudice, in particular the Jim Crow laws in the South.

An exceptional performance about an exceptional man, Roland Hayes
Cleveland Play House

Among the champions of the Civil Rights cause, Roland Hayes' name rarely comes up. In life he was a soft spoken gentleman who worked quietly to solve the crime of segregation. Not only was he a wonderful performer who toured worldwide, he insisted on desegregating the audience at his performances and did much to nurture and promote the African-American singers of his day.

As the play opens, Roland is attempting to address the students and faculty of an integrated music school that he has founded at Angel Mo’ Farm which is the land he has purchased (and named after his mother) where his parents had been slaves before being freed to work as tenant farmers.

During his address, Roland is having difficulty due to the fact that he has suffered a severe beating at the hands of the local sheriff after his wife and daughter are arrested for sitting in the “Whites Only” section of a shoe store in nearby Rome, Georgia. He has decided to close the school and move back north, but before he does he wishes to tell of his life and the events leading up to this decision. What follows is dramatization of Roland’s life from son of tenant farmers to the highest paid singer in the world.

Roland Hayes grew up on a farm in Curryville, Georgia (near Calhoun) with his parents Fanny and William Hayes until age eleven. His father was Roland’s first music teacher who also took Roland hunting in order to better appreciate the sounds of nature. His mother saw to it that he went to church at Mt. Zion Baptist Church (which she had founded) on a regular basis and sing in the choir as well as learn spirituals from the elders to teach to the congregation.

When his part Indian father is killed in a factory accident, his mother moves the family to Chattanooga, Tennessee. After a near fatal accident in a factory where a conveyor belt swept him into the machinery, Roland, despite the protestation of his mother (who wanted him to become a minister), resumed his academic studies and began a series of vocal studies. At age twelve, Roland hears his first recording of Enrico Caruso. It was then that along with his study of spirituals, he would also embark on a serious study of classical operatic singing. He begins his study with Arthur Calhoun and then attends Fisk University in Nashville in spite of his sixth grade education (one of his teachers is able to fund his tuition without his knowledge nearly up to his graduation) and later studies in secret with Arthur Hubbard in Boston (who did not want Roland to embarrass him by appearing at his studio with his white students).

As his career begins, he still fights against prejudice having to rent halls at his own expense and seek ticket sales through various black organizations and churches. After criss-crossing the country he travels to Europe in 1920 to study with Sir George Henschel (conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra) which leads to a performance at London’s Wigmore Hall. The next day sees a summons from King George V and Queen Mary to give a command performance at Buckingham Palace. This leads to a European tour where he is warmly received everywhere except Berlin where he is hissed at for ten minutes by a hostile crowd who feels a black man could not do justice to the great German operatic pieces. After the disturbance settles down, he sings and wins the hearts of the audience with his amazing voice.

He returns to the United States in triumph and begins touring. Although he initially has trouble getting bookings in the South, he is eventually able to tour there in spite of the fact that he insisted on integrated audiences. In 1932 he marries his cousin, Helen Alzada Mann and they have a daughter, Afrika Franzada. He continues to tour until his retirement in 1973 as well as support the development of several African-American singers including Leontyne Price, Dorothy Maynor, Edward Boatner and William Warfield to name a few.

To portray the life of such an extraordinary man is truly a challenge and without a doubt, Elijah Rock is up to the task. He even closely resembles early photos of Roland Hayes. Elijah was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio and like Roland, began singing in church. He was soon discovered by the Cleveland Children’s Chorus and The Cleveland Opera Children’s Chorus where he developed his love for Classical, Broadway and Jazz.

In high school he spent two summers at the Interlochen Arts Camp and was accepted at the Cleveland Institute of Music Young Artist Program his senior year. From there he studied theater, drama, improvisation and sketch comedy at Karamu House Theatre. In his career he has toured worldwide with the “Los Angeles Jubilee Singers” and after moving to New York City has landed lead roles in theater productions across the country as well as roles in various movies. Elijah currently resides in Los Angeles, California where he continues to study classical voice privately with famous Russian baritone, Vladimir Chernov who teaches at the UCLA School of Music.

In short, Elijah Rock was born to portray the complex biography of the great Roland Hayes. He gives equal justice to the spiritual as well as classic operatic pieces. There is even a short dance sequence. Among his many talents, Elijah is also a professional tap dancer and has been hoofing since age ten. He credits his tap skills to his late teacher, Ed Bubba “Taps” Ferduson.

Daphne Gaines as Roland’s loving mother, Angel Mo’ seemingly ages before your eyes starting as a feisty young mother until her passing at an advanced age. Here is a woman, born a slave then freed with a feisty attitude whose advice to Roland is “Keep Your Focus”. She is a person with determination but not lacking humor. In the end her “young voice” comes alive again in a farewell song to Roland. She is the perfect complement to Elijah during their many duets.

Tom Frey has got to the hardest worker on stage. His duties for the production include: Accompanist, Police Officer, Preacher, Pa Hayes, Mr. Calhoun, Miss Robinson, a French accompanist and King George V. Not only does he play each role convincingly, but he is also a terrific piano player as well. In short, the three fill the stage with their presence, never upstaging each other in the process.

The set consists of a plank stage with an antique grand piano on the left. There is a huge “tree” made up of wire and cloth that represents the front yard of the plantation of which the “big house” is hinted at with the use of three tall pillars. Various trunks and suitcases litter the stage and a cabin front with rocking chair up stage is Angel Mo’s home. The lighting is well done with a proper mood set for each scene. Of special mention was the sound level of the miked actors. It was loud enough to understand the dialog and subdued so that the singing performances did not overwhelm us. The show lasts approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.

My only small complaint with the show is that it seems to play a bit fast and loose with historic fact. My research shows that Roland and his family soon returned to Brookline, Massachusetts, but for audience members being unaware of this it does not really take away from the splendid performances.

Prude Alert: This is a spotless show with a strong message on the evils of segregation and the Jim Crow Laws that once swept the South. There is no foul language but there is an abstract portrayal of violence. Bring the children to this one.

Shooting From The Lip (My Last Words): “Breath and Imagination” combines great theater, song, dance and acting into a strong moral tale concerning the evils of segregation and the Jim Crow Laws of the not too distant South. It is a show that all races should share together and learn from. Elijah Rock channels the soul of Roland Hayes in this not to be missed production.

The Crew

Written by Daniel Beaty, Directed by May Adrales, Scenic Design by Rachel Hauck, Costumes Design by Jennifer Moeller, Lighting Design by Jeff Nellis, Sound Design by James C. Swonger, Music arranged by Mike Ruckles, Musical Direction by Rahn Coleman, Projections Design by Jared Mezzocchi, Stage Managing by Jennifer Matheson Collins with Tom Humes as the Assistant Stage Manager, Carolyn Mraz as the Associate Scenic Designer, Melody Ekstrom as the Assistant to the Director, Jesse Kasper as the Spotlight Operator and Byron Brubaker as the Run Crew.

Breath and Imagination Special Events

Breath and Imagination
February 23, 2014
5:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.

Breath and Imagination
February 25, 2014
9:00 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.

Breath and Imagination
March 02, 2014
5:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.

Ticket Information

“Breath and Imagination” will take place through March 9, 2014 in the Allen Theatre at PlayhouseSquare. Tickets range in price from $45-$72 each. Students under the age of 25 with a valid ID will be offered a special $15 ticket price.

Tickets are also just $25 for anyone under age 35, sponsored by Scene Magazine. To order single tickets please call 216-241-6000 or visit

Groups of 10+ save up to 40% off single ticket prices; call 216-400-7027.

Founded in 1915, Cleveland Play House is America’s first professional regional theatre. Throughout its rich history, Cleveland Play House has remained dedicated to its mission to inspire, stimulate and entertain diverse audiences in Northeast Ohio by producing plays and theatre education programs of the highest professional standards. It has produced more than 100 world and/or American premieres, and over its long history more than 12 million people have attended over 1,300 CPH productions. Cleveland Play House looks toward its centennial while performing in three state-of-the art venues at PlayhouseSquare in downtown Cleveland.

The Ohio Arts Council helped fund Cleveland Play House with state tax dollars to encourage economic growth, educational excellence and cultural enrichment for all Ohioans. We also thank the residents of Cuyahoga County for supporting Cleveland Play House through Cuyahoga Arts & Culture.