For a play to succeed there needs to be dramatic tension within a well-crafted script, characters you connect with, a cadre of highly skilled actors, and nimble and intelligent direction. The Hartford Stage’s production of Daniel Beaty’s Breath and Imagination encapsulates all these components to make for absorbing and engaging theater.
The show, with music, tells the true-life story of Roland Hayes, the first world-renowned African-American classically trained singer. Starting off in the early part of the 20th century the narrative is seen as a series of flashbacks of his life. We are introduced to a young boy in poverty living on a Georgia plantation who through talent, determination, hard work, and the influence of his strong-willed mother becomes, in the end, a singing sensation in the United States and Europe. By the early 1920’s Hayes was earning more then $100,000.00 a year, equivalent to over $2.5 million today. During his journey, however, he had to confront the reality of the times—Jim Crow laws and racism.
The play incorporates a significant number of musical numbers throughout the show. There are traditional spirituals, classical selections, and songs composed by playwright Daniel Beaty to flesh out the storyline. They add a richness and vitality to the production.
The cast is small—only three performers, but they fill David Gordon’s minimal set design with solemn fervor and musical intensity. Jubilant Sykes, depicts Roland Hayes as someone with passion, conviction, and self-confidence mixed in with self-doubt and vulnerability. Sykes was so believable in his portrayal of Hayes, whether as an 11 year old boy, college age student, or an adult fully cognizant of his abilities. His powerful voice resonates throughout the theater.
Kecia Lewis portrays Hayes’ mother, Angel Mo’, a woman raised as a slave who endured hardship almost all of her life. Her guidance, bible thumping, and strong-willed personality had a significant influence on Hayes throughout his life. Lewis fully embodies her very essence, her fortitude, and her poignancy. As with Jubilant Sykes, Lewis possesses an impressive voice.
Tom Frey, sitting center stage for most of the show behind a piano, is a triple threat. He accompanies the other two cast members, sings a few numbers himself, and convincingly portrays seven other characters. A tour de force performance that cohesively binds the narrative and action together.
Playwright and composer Daniel Beaty achieves a lot with very little—three actors, a piano, and some wooden chairs. Drawing on the whole life of Roland Hayes he has made the right choices on what to emphasize in order to tell this story of eventual triumph as well as the mother-son relationship. My one quibble is the abridged nature of Hayes’ life. Many aspects of this African-American singer’s career has been glossed over. While the play succeeds as is, I would have liked more.
Director Darko Tresnjak has molded the cast into a tightly focused ensemble. With almost no props or scenery he creates believable and dramatic moments within the lives of the three protagonists. Theatrical flourishes, helped by York Kennedy’s lighting design, amplify the ferment and potency of the production. He seamlessly incorporates Tom Frey’s many guises into the play without missing a beat.
Breath and Imagination--well-worth seeing. Now at The Hartford Stage through February 9th.