Roland Hayes' fascinating life was a mostly hidden chapter of American history just waiting for a writer to mine for dramatic presentation. Born the son of slaves in 1887 Georgia, he defied poverty and prejudice to become the first African-American classical vocalist to tour the world.
Daniel Beaty's biographical play "Breath & Imagination," a collaboration of Hartford Stage and City Theatre, stars concert and recording artist Jubilant Sykes in his acting debut and Kecia Lewis-Evans, a veteran of Broadway and touring musicals, playing Hayes' mother, Angel Mo'.
Mr. Sykes, a baritone who lives on the West Coast when he's not singing with orchestras in London, Seattle, Pittsburgh and more, recalls hearing about Hayes as a singer, but nothing more.
"He was an amazing man, a very gentle spirit, an elegant man. So it's quite an honor to play him," said Mr. Sykes, who gives off a gentle, elegant vibe of his own. "A music teacher in middle school was turning me on to the Marian Andersons, the Leontyne Prices, Paul Robeson, of course, mainly concert artists. I just knew that she respected [Hayes] because of his concert singing. There was really no history -- that probably would have been a little too dark for a sixth- or seventh-grade kid."
The actors each told an intriguing story about getting to the Mainstage at City Theatre.
Ms. Lewis-Evans, a native New Yorker, is best known for Broadway roles that began with 1985's "Big River." She has appeared in "Chicago" on Broadway and on tour here and was seen in Pittsburgh CLO's 2010 production of "Hairspray." She was introduced to the name Roland Hayes after her introduction to writer/actor/director Mr. Beaty.
"Daniel saw me perform in a musical in Lincoln Center called 'Dessa Rose,' and he was moved by my performance. He had taken his mother for her birthday, and he tells the story that at one point he leaned over to his mother and said, 'I don't know who that woman is, but I'm going to create something for her.' A few months after that, he was directing a piece at [New York's] Public Theater, and he invited me to be a part of that, and we became personal friends. And when he was commissioned to write this piece, he told me, 'I'm writing this role for you.' "
"Breath & Imagination" had its Angel Mo', but it was missing its Roland, someone who could be convincing as a boy growing up under his mother's tough love, as someone learning the ins and outs of classical music and then delivering as a trained vocalist. He had to be able to act those phases of a man's life -- and Mr. Sykes had never acted before. Acting had long been a goal for the vocalist, "but that wasn't the door that opened for me," he said.
When the call came to audition for this play, he was busy with other work and said no. Then came a second call, asking him to stop in New York on his way home from a London concert.
"My wife actually made me change my mind. She read the script and said, 'Jubilant, this is totally you.' She knew I wanted to act. A year or two before, [Oscar-winning actress] Helen Hunt wrote me a letter and said, 'You would make a great actor.' She came to a production of 'Bernstein: Mass' at the Hollywood Bowl, and I still have the letter in my little scrapbook."
"I didn't know this!" Ms. Lewis-Evans interrupted. "And we talked about both knowing Helen."
"My wife said you are getting all of this input that you should act, so you should go, and I did. It was for Darko [Tresnjak, the director] and Daniel, and by the time I got back to my hotel room, my wife said, 'Congratulations!' She knew before I did."
The play transports us back and forth to the difficult and triumphant times of Hayes' life, from a boyhood where his father died in a factory accident, to finding a mentor for his singing and defying his mother to continue. In 1920, he performed his first European concert in London and was invited to sing for England's King George and Queen Mary. In the 1960s, he sang a benefit concert at Carnegie Hall.
The play recounts an incident in 1942, when Hayes' wife and daughter mistakenly sat in a whites-only area of a Georgia shoe store and were assaulted and arrested by the local police. Hayes rushed to them and also was beaten. Newspapers reported that the incident sparked Gov. Eugene Talmadge to warn blacks who didn't agree with his state's segregation practices "to stay out of Georgia."
Hayes lived into his 80s, long enough to have experienced the physical and emotional pain of racial hatred and outlive the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
As recounted in "Breath & Imagination" -- the title comes from a lesson in imitating beautiful sounds made by birds -- young Roland struggles to be a good son to Angel Mo' and to follow his calling, while she opposes his singing and demands he become a preacher or leave. Her character is familiar to Ms. Lewis-Evans as a person but a different type from what she's used to as a performer.
"I've been very blessed in a director like Darko and a writer like Daniel, who were able to key in on my discomfort and why it is important to reveal this personality type," the actress said. "And she's complex. Very often in theater, there aren't a lot of roles written for my type of woman. Certainly not leading roles; my type is usually the best friend or the supporting funny girl, so I know how to play that type very well. But this woman is a little more complex, a little deeper. Most people know her, know somebody like her. That part of this has been challenging but exciting."
This whole acting thing is brand-new to Mr. Sykes, whom Ms. Lewis-Evans declared a natural. She's watched him grow in trust -- of his acting partners, including pianist-actor Tom Frey, and himself.
"There's something about it that I enjoy, that I rest in more than singing," Mr. Sykes said. "I don't know if it's freedom. Darko will tell me that I am the conductor, so I can drive it, I can slow it ... I feel like I've come home."
He's found a first acting role that will be a history lesson to many audience members.
When most people think of a pioneering African-American male vocalist, the name that comes to mind is Paul Robeson, the singer-actor-athlete and civil rights activist.
"[Robeson] was a bigger-than-life character, and Roland Hayes wasn't," Mr. Sykes said. "He was the quintessential quiet concert artist. So even back in the day, the people who knew of him were concertgoers. To see that he actually had a legitimate career singing Schubert, Schumann, and singing it well enough that critics were listening to the phrasing and the lyrics, then to discover all the backstory, the madness, the beatings ... and that he didn't succumb to bitterness, he didn't have a chip on his shoulder. There are moments in the play he started to put a log on his shoulder, but his life did not end that way. He was a sweet man."
Sharon Eberson: email@example.com or 412-263-1960.