Breath and Imagination at Hartford Stage -- Great Music, Ho-Hum Drama
By Karen Isaacs
The music and singing are terrific in Breath and Imagination, receiving its world premier at Hartford Stage, through Feb. 9.
Plus, the central character is someone must of us do not know, yet was a significant American artistic figure. Roland Hayes was the first renowned African-American vocalist -- before Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson or Leontyne Price and Jessie Norman. He performed in concert with the Boston Symphony, at Carnegie Hall and throughout Europe including a number of "command" performances for crowned heads.
His story is remarkable; he was born in Georgia the son of slaves. Singing spirituals in church led him to a white teacher who taught him the classical repertoire of arias and lieder. He then joined the Jubilee Singers at Fisk University which toured the country. Through hard work and presenting his own concerts, he was able to make a name for himself.
Dramatist Daniel Beaty has chosen to tell Hayes' story first as a mostly chronological biography from childhood to the 1940s but also by focusing on the relationship between Hayes and his mother, whom he called Angel Mo'. This creates several problems in the relatively short (under two hours including intermission) play. It becomes episodic with brief scenes and dialogue stringing together the music.
Lots of music is performed, so much that it would be nice if the program listed the songs. Some are well known spirituals, and some are classical pieces but Beaty has also written some music for the play. Unfortunately that music does not live up to the quality of the other selections and seems to add little to the story.
Jubilant Sykes, a well regarded baritone with classical training portrays Hayes, though Hayes was a tenor. Sykes looks like Hayes and shows us the man's determination and dignity. He even manages to make believable, with the help of some clever direction by Darko Tresnjak, the scenes of him as a 12-year-old boy.
It goes without saying that Sykes handles the music beautifully.
Kecia Lewis plays his mother, obviously a guiding force in his life who was not necessarily supportive of his dreams. In addition, Tom Frey is both the accompanist and a number of other characters from two of his teachers to King George V, to a southern police officer who arrested Hayes, his wife and daughter in the 1940s when the two women sat in a "whites only" section of a shoe store.
Tresnjak does a good job both keeping this episodic piece moving and hiding the flaws in the dramatic structure. He is aided by an adaptive set by David P. Gordon and the production team.
Unfortunately Beaty has fallen into a common trap when a playwright becomes so fascinated with a subject; in trying to tell so much, he has really told us not nearly enough about the man and his point of view. In focusing on the details and facts, we have lost the real Roland Hayes.
Yet, you will enjoy the music and be fascinated by the story of this man, who is unknown to most of us.
Breath and Imagination is at the Hartford Stage Company, 50 Church St, Hartford, through Feb. 9. For tickets and information, call the box office at 860-527-5151 or visit www.HartfordStage.org.
This review appears in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers January 30, 2013 and online at Zip06.com.