Breath & Imagination Also see Fred's Interview with Rob Ruggiero
Also see Fred's Interview with Rob Ruggiero
Roland Hayes (Jubilant Sykes) was an African-American classical singer far before such notable performers as Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson. Hayes grew up on a farm in Georgia and his parents were once slaves. When Hayes was 11 his father died and his mother moved, with her son, to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Arthur Calhoun, of the Oberlin Conservatory, was Hayes' formative singing influence. Roland gave his father's pocket watch to Calhoun to pay for lessons. That is not the last recognition of the watch.
Central to Beaty's script is Hayes' mother, called Angel Mo'. The relationship between mother and son is ever enduring and heartening. The young man, at 18, declares that he must leave his job to study music at Fisk University in Nashville; Angel Mo' is, at first, devastated. The third and quite pivotal individual involved in the play is pianist Tom Frey. He also takes on roles such as a preacher, Mr. Wilkes and, distinctively, Miss Robinson. Frey, who plays behind the singers with great touch, steps away from the keyboard, every so often, to supply a third and important thread to the plot line.
Eventually, Hayes becomes the first Negro to sing at Boston's Symphony Hall and travels widely. His mother remains his conscience who says, "You carry the pain and promise of your people in your throat."
Breath & Imagination features spirituals such as "Golden Slippers," "Hold On," also a portion of Gabriel Fauré's "Les Berceaux," and many new compositions written by Daniel Beaty. David Gordon, designing, leaves the stage open as he provides, toward the rear, the exterior of a house. A grand piano sits center stage.
While she is on stage, Kecia Lewis, as Angel Mo', is magnetic through her powerful, far-reaching voiceand presence. "Never Leave Me," performed by Lewis and written by Beaty, is one of the more endearing numbers of the show. Lewis understands her role and, even if she does not appear to be any older than Sykes, she embodies his mother: Angel Mo' is strong-willed but absolutely devoted to her son. She is a confident actor and one looks forward to hearing her rich voice.
Sykes' performance is, at times, winning but, during other moments, not quite so impressive. He is asked, during an opening portion, to play Roland as a little boy and that sequence is not all that convincing. Sykes is a fine baritone but it is not until nearly the end of the evening that he fully inhabits a song. It seems as if some numbers do not reveal Sykes' vocal talent. He performs "Were You There" with great compassion. The character of Roland requires an actor to become a variety of individuals during a lifetime. Sykes is more proficient with some than others.
This is a new play and it is not inconceivable that an observer might wonder whether he has heard the story before. That would be imprecise. The Hartford Stage production demonstrates Tresnjak's ability to interpret a script and season a production so that ingredients are knowingly and carefully addedall to the good of the show.
Breath & Imagination continues at Hartford Stage through February 9th. For ticket information, visit www.hartfordstage.org or call (860) 527-5151.
- Fred Sokol