This stage bio of African-American singer Roland Hayes isn’t a play in the standard sense. It’s more a succession of imagined scenes from his groundbreaking life, from childhood in rural Alabama poverty to stardom on world concert stages in the early 20th century.
Of course there’s plenty of music too, with the powerful voices of Jubilant Sykes (as Hayes) and Kecia Lewis (as his mother) booming out everything from vintage spirituals to German art song. Many scenes in fact feel built around the songs they lead up to.
This isn’t a heady evening at the theater. Playwright Daniel Beaty has arranged the scenes chronologically, with some flash-forwards to tie things together. And it’s all built around a few simple conflicts: Hayes’ desire to sing; his mother’s resistance to that career choice; and society’s resistance to a classically trained black vocalist. (Hayes was born in 1887; and we thought Marian Anderson, born 10 years later, in Philadelphia, had it tough — because, of course, she did.)
But the whites who kept Hayes down are represented in this show by a single character — a brutal Southern cop. The other seven roles played by actor and piano accompanist Tom Frey are all sympathetic. If more genteel influential persons ever barred the singer’s way — and they must have — we never get a concrete sense of it. Worse, despite some lyrical writing, Beatty never offers much insight into Hayes. He’s simply someone driven to sing and who hates segregation, both qualities you could have guessed going in.
Still, as Michelle Pilecki points out in her review of the show for CP, the skilled and tireless three-member cast are quite enjoyable. And Hayes’ amazing story — he died in 1942 — is too little known. If nothing else, Sykes’ performance makes sure you won’t forget it.
There are four more performances of Breath & Imagination: 8 p.m. tonight, 5:30 and 9 p.m. tomorrow, and a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday.