The Daughters of the American Revolution in 1939 barred internationally renowned contralto Marian Anderson from singing in its Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., because she was African-American. Despite protests from first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, among others, the DAR refused to change its policy.
Imagine, then, the impossible challenge that another African-American singer, Roland Hayes, faced in 1920 when he pushed to establish himself as a classical artist in a world restricted to whites only. Hayes succeeded, earning as much as $100,000 a year from his tenor voice, mostly in Europe, but faced ostracism and police violence in his native Georgia.
In its premiere production of "Breath & Imagination," shared with Hartford (Conn.) Stage, City Theatre honors Hayes' life and talent through the superb performances of the three-person cast: Jubilant Sykes as Hayes, Kecia Lewis as his mother, Angel Mo', and Tom Frey, the pianist who plays multiple roles including Britain's King George V.
The shiny black piano holds center stage in the simple yet expansive set with echoes of a rural black church designed by Hartford's David P. Gordon. The three-sided thrust configuration at City creates an intimate setting that allows the actors to perform without amplification, which adds to the intimacy.
Mr. Sykes is a well-versed opera singer at ease with the classical art songs by Schumann and Faure as well as Christian spirituals, the musical mixture Hayes sang to reflect his talents and his heritage. As an actor, Mr. Sykes moves easily from the child to the older man whose confidence grows strong enough to defy the racism and threats he faced in his own nation.
Playwright Daniel Beaty emphasizes several relationships in Hayes' biography -- the bond between him and his mother and his mother's unquestioning faith in God. A widow and former slave, Angel Mo' is drawn as a tough survivor with an instinctual musical sense that she passes along to her son.
Behind every great man is a great mother, Mr. Beaty tells us, and Ms. Lewis makes a formidable parent, both in her powerful singing and forceful personality. Her son was so strongly committed to his dream that he defied his mother, at his own peril as well as to his credit. "Breath & Imagination" then is as much about Angel Mo' as it is about Hayes.
Mr. Frey's superb piano playing is the connective tissue of the play, as accompaniment to the singers and creation of atmosphere through Hayes' story. His key roles include musical mentors Mr. Calhoun and Miss Robinson, Hayes' father and the Rome, Ga., cop who assaults the singer.
Unsubtle and at times simplistic, "Breath & Imagination" is a conventional drama turned powerful and moving on the strength of its music and performers. Mr. Beaty wrote six of the songs in the play with "Never Leave Me" and "I Need You" as standouts.
The play's 90 minutes move easily to a satisfying conclusion, leaving the audience with an appreciation of a civil rights pioneer and a great artist.
Bob Hoover: email@example.com.