Roland Hayes, born in 1887 to former slaves-turned-impoverished tenant farmers, was in his teens when he heard a recording of the great tenor Caruso and knew that he had found his calling. By the mid-1920s, despite being barred from some venues because of the color of his skin, Hayes was world-renowned and had become the highest-paid classical singer in the country.
Somehow, this groundbreaking artist has been largely forgotten. “Breath and Imagination: The Story of Roland Hayes,” a play with music by Daniel Beaty, is therefore something of a revelation in its stirring West Coast premiere as the Colony Theatre’s 2013-14 season-opener in Burbank.
Multitalented Elijah Rock, an actor, a jazz singer and classically trained vocalist of stunning power and subtlety, heads the cast as Hayes and does memorable justice to the play’s wealth of spirituals, operatic arias and art songs. He is as equally arresting singing “Were You There (when they crucified my Lord)” as he is capturing the nuances and resonant beauty in works by Schumann, Fauré and Gluck. As Hayes’ mother Angel Mo’ — his first and lasting musical influence — full-throated Karan Kendrick invests her role with melodic warmth and evocative dimension.
Ably rounding out the cast, accompanist Kevin Ashworth leaves his onstage piano briefly throughout to play multiple characters: Hayes’ father, a racist officer, Hayes’ early, inspirational vocal teacher, a supportive female Fisk University teacher and England’s King George V among them.
(To make the shift, Ashworth dons representative wardrobe pieces supplied by costume designer Dianne K. Graebner.)
Beaty’s script, under Saundra McClain’s sensitive direction, reveals Hayes’ life as a series of music-propelled vignettes. (Mike Ruckles is the show’s arranger; musical director Rahn Coleman provides additional arrangements.) These vignettes are presented as flashbacks during a speech that the adult Hayes gives regarding his purchase of the plantation farm where his mother had been a slave. His intention is to turn the property into an integrated music school, but as the play shifts to an ugly incident targeting his wife and daughter, it becomes clear that the realities of the 1940s Jim Crow south are a shock to the well-traveled Hayes.
The memories take Hayes back to his boyhood, to the spirituals that he learns from his devout, church-going mother, and that make up a good part of the play’s rich musical fabric. Pa (Ashworth) makes a brief appearance, telling his son to “call the birds” in the woods, heralding Rock’s moving, boyish performance of “Over My Head (I hear music in the air...).”
The death of Hayes’ father in a factory accident forces his 11-year-old son to leave school. Eventually, Hayes finds a way to take private voice lessons and to later attend Fisk University, where he sings and tours the country with the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Relocating to Boston, Hayes sponsors his own symphony hall solo concert, attracting admiring audiences and critics. He lengthily tours Europe and comes home to further success.
It’s an astonishing story of an artist who, in the face of overt and covert racism would not be denied his art, yet never became an activist for civil rights and social justice, unlike Paul Robeson, whom Hayes preceded in fame. “Music was my cause,” Hayes says in the play.
Poignantly, however, Hayes’ beating by police after he protests the arrest of his wife and daughter for sitting in a whites-only section of a shoe store is juxtaposed against his recent triumphant recitals for the European royalty. Rock pours Hayes’ anguish and disillusionment into the spiritual, “Lord, How Come I Here,” to devastating effect.
That Beaty ultimately resolves Hayes’ music school dilemma with a pat turnabout decision is far outweighed by the production’s striking emotional resonance and the beauty of its vocal performances.
Kudos, too, to sound designer Dave Mickey and the spare elegance of Shaun L. Motley’s set design — a trilevel stage framed by tall, curved and slatted set pieces — complemented by lighting designer Jared A. Sayeg’s warm illuminations and subtle shadows.
Where: Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St., Burbank.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Ends Oct. 13.
Cost: $25 to $45.
More info: (818) 558-7000, http://www.colonytheatre.org
LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.