Robeson was a football player, political, and civil rights activist, who, because of his criticism of the US government and communistic leanings, was blacklisted during the McCarthy witch hunts. He was a star of movies and Broadway and an international singing sensation, thus garnering public name recognition.
Anderson, not only was a world renowned singer, but became a cause celeb when, in 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused permission for her to sing to an integrated audience in Washington D.C.’s Constitution Hall. With intervention from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, her performance was transferred to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where she sang before a crowd of more than 75,000 and a radio audience in the millions. Her role in the Civil Rights movement is well documented.
Roland Hayes preceded both Robeson and Anderson, but received little public recognition in the United States. He had an understated personality and did not demand attention. At the height of his fame, well before the Civil Rights movement, little attention was given to the plight of the Negroes and the virulent prejudice against them, especially in the south, so his story did not get the spotlight.
Hayes, born in Curryville, Georgia in 1887, was the son of a fanatically religious mother who was a freed slave, and a father who was part-Native American. His maternal great-grandfather was a Côte d’Ivoire chieftain in Africa, who was captured and shipped to America. Hayes’ father died as a result of an accident while working in a factory. When taken to a local hospital, he was refused treatment because of his skin color.
In that era of hate, against great odds, Hayes rose from being a young boy singing spirituals in a church founded by his mother, to became the first world-renowned African-American classical vocalist. His fame resulted in his singing before kings and queens and being a favorite on the European continent.
His unique vocal style, which combined classical precision with the passion of Negro spirituals, resulted in nuanced dark tones to his presentations, making him unique among classical singers of his day.
Though some of the historical details have seemingly been altered for dramatic effect, Daniel Beaty’s "BREATH AND IMAGINATION" combines narrative sketches, comments to the audience, and song selections, into a bio-drama, a play with music, that tells the remarkable tale of this gentle yet powerful and talented man.
We travel Hayes’ life path as he discovers the sound of operatic music via a recording by Italian tenor, Enrico Caruso, is exposed to languages and music by a white church organist, is accepted into Fisk University though he only had a 6th grade education, received training through the financial support of a teacher who without his knowledge paid for his education, attempts to find venues in which to perform, has a sold-out performance in Boston’s Symphony Hall with the aid of local Black churches, travels to major cities of the American north, and embarks on a European tour. In 1923, when he returned to America, he became the first African-American soloist to appear with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
In spite of his international renown, when, in 1942, he returned to Georgia with his wife and daughter, they were arrested and beaten for sitting in the white-only section of a shoe store.
CPH’s production, under the direction of May Adrales, is a fascinating journey that exposes the audience to the reaches of prejudice and the difficulties placed on people by those who hate and perform acts of cruelty for no other reason than that they can. The production is nicely paced, and the characters are clearly developed, but Adrales should have paid attention to sight lines and hearing difficulties caused by scenes being placed in the back segment of the stage.
Cleveland native, Elijah Rock, a University School grad, with Cleveland Institute of Music, Singing Angels, Karamu and Lyric Opera Cleveland training, has a fine singing voice, the acting skills and the ability to create a very believable Roland. Though some may question his pure operatic skills, the arias he presented incited strong positive audience reactions.
Daphne Gaines finely creates in Angel Mo’, Roland’s mother, a woman who has grown from slave to strong freed woman, filled with habits and beliefs. She adds the right levels of determination and humor to make Angel Mo’ into a memorable person. Gaines well follows the mantra of her character, “Keep your focus.”
Tom Frey not only is a fine pianist, who plays the entire score, but portrays a Jim Crow policeman, preacher, Roland’s male and female music teachers, and King George V. This is a taxing role, which Frey does with skill.
Rachel Hauck’s set design consists of a huge wire tree and gauze formed leaves which arches over the entire stage, encompassing Roland’s entire life. Placing some of the scenes far upstage, however, makes for difficulty in hearing spoken and sung segments in this microphone-less production.
Jeff Nellis’s lighting design effectively highlights designated performance areas.
Though script purists may question the play’s present, past, interactive asides to the audience format, Beaty has concocted a way of telling the tale, so that the ideas flow well and hold the audience’s attention for the hour and a half intermissionless performance.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: "BREATH AND IMAGINATION" is an ideal offering for Black History month. It exposes the audience to an African-American who deserves recognition, spotlights the horrors of racism, highlights musical sounds not commonly seen on theatrical stages, while illustrating a script developmental scheme that allows for history to be portrayed in a non-traditional mode. This is a show well worth seeing!
"BREATH AND IMAGINATION" runs through March 9, 2014 at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare. For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.