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Breath and Imagination

a Musical
by Daniel Beaty

COMPANY : ART Station Theatre [WEBSITE]
VENUE : ART Station Theatre [WEBSITE]
ID# 5282

SHOWING : May 30, 2018 - June 10, 2018



Before Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes was the first African-American classical vocalist to achieve world fame. The son of a Georgia slave, Hayes discovered his voice as a young boy, singing spirituals in church. This musical play chronicles his amazing journey from Georgia plantation to singing before Kings and Queens in Europe.

Director Marguerite Hannah
Roland Hayes Marcellis Cutler
The Officer/Mr. Calhoun/King George Tony Hayes
Angel Mo’ Theresa Hightower
The Accompanist/The Frenchman Patrick Hutchinson
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Not Breathtakingly Imaginative
by playgoer
Monday, June 4, 2018
The life of Roland Hayes (1887-1977) has built-in drama. The sweet-voiced son of former slaves eking out a living in Georgia, he took voice lessons against his mother’s wishes, traveled with the Fisk Jubilee Singers, embarked on a solo career that took him to Europe as a lyric tenor celebrated by the crowned heads of Europe, then returned to Georgia and experienced racial discrimination and police violence. Daniel Beaty’s script simplifies his life story, emphasizing race and family to create an uplifting story. The dream of an integrated music school in Georgia and the history of a legacy pocket watch from his father are driving forces in the story; left out are his affair with and impregnation of a married countess in Europe and his leaving of Georgia in 1948 due to its Jim Crow conditions.

Act one starts with an address in 1942 to the integrated music school he has just founded, shortly after his wife and daughter were arrested and imprisoned for sitting in the whites-only section of a shoe store and he was beaten when he went to the police station to inquire after them. The action then flashes back to follow him from age 11, when his father was killed in a machinery accident, to the age of 18, when he disobeyed his mother’s wishes (that he become a preacher) to attend Fisk University as a voice student.

Act two takes Roland Hayes up to the age of 55, culminating in the conclusion of his 1942 address to the students at his school, reiterating and wrapping up the snippets of 1942 action we have seen throughout the play. Reconciliation with his mother plays a large part in this act, as does her eventual death. Since the only substantial characters in the play are Roland (Marcellis Cutler) and his mother (Theresa Hightower), the mother-son bond is at the center. In minor roles, Tony Hayes plays Roland’s first voice teacher and a racist cop, while Patrick Hutchison plays a Frenchman in addition to playing the piano. Bill Leavell and the cast do voiceovers as other characters.

The play is full of song, starting with Negro folk spirituals and eventually adding in German art songs and opera. After the play, I heard one playgoer compare the show’s structure to a high school production, with songs stuck in after every few lines of dialogue. At least applause isn’t requested after each number; the lighting design nicely dims lights when applause is appropriate.

The physical production is effective rather than impressive. Michael Hidalgo’s scenography places faux-wood-plank platforms stage right (with the piano and a gramophone) and stage left (with a bench in act one and a rocking chair in act two). Upstage are three black mesh scrims in front of a cyclorama on which a minimum of projections occur, with another rocking chair up left, where the mother sits before she joins the story and after she dies. Dr. L. Nyrobi N. Moss’s costumes are adequate for the handful of characters portrayed onstage, nicely disguising the microphones worn by Mr. Hayes and Ms. Hightower (which can make for an odd, but audible mixture of on-stage sound and speaker sound in Kacie Willi’s sound design).

The biographical story of an acclaimed singer calls, of course, for an actor with an extraordinary voice. In Mr. Cutler, we have a very good voice. The main problem in his portrayal of Roland Hayes, however, is that the age range from 11 to 55 is beyond his skills as an actor. He is very good as the callow youth of his late teens, but doesn’t convince either as a child or as a mature man. His emotions are deep and he throws himself into the role, but his performance is eclipsed by that of Ms. Hightower, whose strong voice and impeccable acting truly impress.

Marguerite Hannah has directed the show to bring the script to life and to keep the action moving. The mother-son interactions are believable and engaging, but the constant interruptions of songs become a bit tiresome. "Breath and Imagination" is valuable in drawing attention to an African-American singer who was acclaimed more in Europe than in his own home state, but the script structures his story for racially affirmative and sentimental ends that tend to give the show a "good for you" feel rather than revealing the story of a man, warts and all. It’s grits and gravy followed by grit and determination, and yet not very gritty. [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]


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