If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan
Hartford Stage Premieres New Play with Music
The world premiere of Daniel Beaty’s “Breath & Imagination” is the first production of the new year at Hartford Stage. This earnest, well-meaning but ultimately disappointing new play with music is valuable in the sense that it brings to light an artist few people may have heard of until now. For that, Mr. Beaty and Hartford Stage should be applauded.
The artist in question is Roland Hayes, an African-American singer who was the son of a slave and became a world-renowned classical vocalist in the 1940s. Mr. Hayes’ journey from a poor farm boy in the North Georgia mountains to an accomplished performer on opera stages around the world is a fascinating one. In Mr. Beaty’s writing, however, the story is chronicled in Cliff Notes style sequences performed by three actors and lasting 90 minutes (including an intermission). This is the Wikipedia world of biography which also makes room for a great deal of music incorporating traditional spirituals, classical music and Mr. Beaty’s own original songs.
“Breath & Imagination” begins with a successful Roland Hayes (Jubilant Sykes) addressing an audience in 1942 and then flashing back to his early beginnings in Georgia as the son of Angel Mo’, his beloved mother. Angel Mo’ is a theatrical archetype dating back to at least “Raisin in the Sun” where the domineering, God-fearing mother figure is the major influence of her child’s life. It’s a stereotype, of course, but as played in Hartford by Kecia Lewis it’s a forceful and memorable one. Completing the cast is Tom Frey, an onstage pianist and versatile actor who takes on a number of other roles ranging from a farm animal to King George V.
Beaty’s play progresses in fits and starts with moments of real raw power that are then subverted by long stretches of lazy writing. Much seems overly familiar here with Hayes’ journey going through the requisite stages of impoverished childhood to a manhood where he still faced racial prejudice. It’s not that his history isn’t interesting or worthwhile but that Beaty, in an effort to try to encompass an entire lifetime, manages to make it all seem slight and superficial. A climax that finds Sykes’ wife and daughter jailed doesn’t even seem to have been fully realized or completed in the play as currently written.
In the leading role, classically-trained baritone Jubilant Sykes has no trouble delivering roof-raising music but is less comfortable when serious acting is called for. He is obvious and far too broad playing Hayes’ younger self and has an odd habit of concluding all his musical numbers with a strange, self-pleased grin that screams for a director’s note. In other roles, Ms. Lewis proves both funny and domineering and Mr. Frey almost steals the show with his various characters and expert piano playing.
Director Darko Tresnjak’s perfunctory direction has pacing problems throughout but he is helped immeasurably by York Kennedy’s precise lighting and Fabio Toblini’s reliable costuming. “Breath & Imagination” has enough promise that it makes you want to learn even more about this trail-blazing artist who paved the way for Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson and countless others. Thus far, Mr. Beaty has only scratched the surface.
“Breath & Imagination” continues at Hartford Stage through February 9. For further information and ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 860.525.5601 or visit: www.hartfordstage.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: email@example.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.