Breath & Imagination
by David A. Rosenberg
Daniel Beaty’s superficial but entertaining “Breath and Imagination” at Hartford Stage tells of Roland Hayes, the first world-renowned African-American vocalist. Born the son of slaves in 1887, Hayes eventually became so successful that he bought the plantation where his parents worked in order to establish an inter-racial school of music.
That inspirational story is told against the background of how Hayes discovered that he had a voice, sang with the Fisk Jubilee Singers, trained with various teachers, then embarked on a path that took him from Carnegie Hall to the capitals of Europe, even performing for England’s King George V. His repertoire encompassed both spirituals and art songs.
His father having died when Hayes was 11, the young boy relied on his religious mother who was, at first, reluctant about his chosen career. She does come around, of course (“It’s a sin to sit on your gift,” she says), and becomes a staunch supporter.
It’s a pretty straightforward story, more concert than play, that flashes back from the time Hayes’ wife and daughter are arrested in Tennessee because they inadvertently sat in the white section of a shoe store. By then Hayes has not only moved north but became an international star, earning a whopping (for that time) $100,000 a year.
The title comes from his father’s admonition to “use your breath and imagination” to call the birds. Also, “Kiss the air with your breath and nature will carry the sound on the wind.” The two dozen songs that illustrate these sentiments are affecting, as is the idea of art’s ability to save lives.
But biography is basically all we get. There’s little depth here. The evening is so linear, it eschews dramatization.
Abetted by sterling technical support, director Darko Tresnjak’s fluid direction suggests worlds beyond the ones before us. As Hayes, Jubilant Sykes has a monumental task, handled with humor and poignancy, although why he ends numbers with a wide-eyed stare is puzzling. His voice suggests the power and sensitivity with which Hayes must have entranced audiences.
As Angel Mo’, his pragmatic mother, Kecia Lewis is forceful even while subtly conveying the pride she has in her son. As a half dozen other characters, Tom Frey is terrific and plays a mean piano accompaniment.