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Regional Reviews: Cleveland & Akron

Breath and Imagination
Cleveland Play House

Daphne Gaines, Tom Frey and Elijah Rock
Before the great, inspiring voices of Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson, an African-American tenor named Roland Hayes (1887-1977) worked his way from the fields of Georgia to Carnegie Hall and Buckingham Palace. Hayes sang in the churches and learned spirituals and taught them to congregations in other churches. Hayes is the subject of Breath and Imagination and played by Elijah Rock in this Cleveland Play House production. According to the script, he was discovered by teachers, who gave him lessons, improved his style and polished his talent.

Helping Hayes every step of the way was his mother Angel Mo' (Daphne Gaines). She had one motto for raising her son: "Keep your focus." However, she had a different focus than her son. She wanted him to become a minister. He wanted to be a singer. They finally found a common ground in his performances of spirituals. He wove spirituals into concerts of arias, art songs and other classical music.

Elijah Rock was raised in Cleveland as Eric Myricks. He has found success as a jazz singer, a tap dancer, and a stage and film performer. Rock has the perfect tenor voice for playing Roland Hayes. He is capable of making the spirituals pull at your heart strings and making the arias evoke comparisons with performs such as Enrico Caruso.

Daphne Gaines is a great deal younger than the character she plays. She carries many of the songs in the show with a pure, clear voice that can start as a low growl and soar to the roof of the Allen Theatre.

Tom Frey accompanies the songs at a beautiful grand piano. In addition he plays minor character, male and female, good guys and bad guys. Frey is a spectacular talent. He accompanies both singers without once over powering them with volume or timing.

In fact, the three performs bring great talent to the stage.

As the story unfolds, Roland Hayes sings traditional spirituals: "Poor Pilgrim," Give Me Jesus," "Were You There?" and many others. In addition, he sings "Ich grolle nicht" (Robert Schumann), "Gia il sole dal Gange" (Alessandro Scarlatti), "O del mio dolce ardor" (Christoph Willibald Von Gluck) and others.

One story from Hayes' life dominates this 90 minute show. Hayes, his wife Alzada, and their daughter Afrika were in Rome, Georgia. Alzada and Afrika went to a store to buy shoes. When they sat in the whites-only section of the shoe department, they were arrested. Hayes went to the jail to get them and was arrested and beaten. This story is retold several times in this script. This event focused Hayes on performing for only integrated audiences.

Hayes was the first truly successful African-American soloist in the United States and, later in his career, internationally. In some years, he earned over $100,000 and that was during and after the Great Depression.

Daniel Beaty wrote a well-structured script. In 90 minutes, Beaty tells the high points of Hayes' life and includes many of the songs that were important to Hayes' career.

Breath and Imagination is a satisfying production. The cast is excellent. The set and costumes evoke the life and times of Roland Hayes.

Through March 9, 2014, at the Allen Theatre, Cleveland Play House. For ticket information, telephone 216-241-6000 or visit

Breath and Imagination
By Daniel Beaty

Roland Hayes: Elijah Rock
Angel Mo': Daphne Gaines
The Accompanist/ Officer/ Preacher/Pa/Mr. Calhoun/ Miss Robinson/ Frenchman/ King George V: Tom Frey

Director: May Adrales
Scenic Designer: Rachel Hauck
Costume Designer: Jennifer Moeller
Lighting Designer: Jeff Nellis
Sound Designer: James C. Swonger
Arranger: Mike Ruckles
Musical Direction: Rahn Coleman
projections Designer: Jared Mezzocchi

- David Ritchey

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