WORLD PREMIERE— Jubilant Sykes and Kecia Lewis in a scene from “Breath and Imagination” (Hartford Stage/T. Charles Erickson)
by C. Denise Johnson
For New Pittsburgh Courier
Most playwrights hope their creations will move, entertain and meet favorable reviews. In the case of “Breath & Imagination,” Daniel Beatty’s latest work is a 3-pointer. City Theatre’s latest offering, a world premiere co-production with Hartford Stage, offers an outstanding platform for stellar performances.
“Breath & Imagination” shares the story of a trailblazer, born to former slaves, who defies the convention of early 1900 American to become an overseas phenomenon. Roland Hayes dared to imagine and invented himself to become a celebrated vocalist who could breathe new life into European art songs while elevating Negro Spirituals to a level on par with classical music and blazed the trail for Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson and Leontyne Price.
To say “Breath” is a musical would be an injustice – it is a history that chronicles the life of Hayes from his childhood in poverty (his parents were sharecroppers on the farm where they were once enslaved), his introduction to music via his father, who encouraged him to listen to the sound of nature, and his indomitable mother, a staunch church-going woman. It was songs in the church that caught his ear and he began to sing.
“Breath” opens with a plain, simple stage with a grand piano as its focal point. It is 1943 and we’re on the family homestead in rural Georgia that Hayes purchased to establish an integrated music school. Through a series of recollections, Hayes retraces the path that brought him to this moment, when he must decide if 1943 Georgia is ready for such an endeavor.
This rich story is brought to life by three exceptional artists: Tom Frey, as the accompanist who also takes on seven different characters; Kecia Lewis as the god-fearing no-nonsense Hayes’ mother (aka Angel Mo) and Jubilant Sykes in the title role.
Sykes is the perfect choice to bring Hayes’ story to life. A classically trained singer who has appeared in opera, he seemingly channels the spirit of this music pioneer and segues from childhood to maturing with ease. It turns comedic and tragic (in the face of Jim Crow), Sykes share the turmoil of doubt, determination, dignity and ultimately triumph.
Lewis is as special as Skyes, drawing on her Broadway experience (Chicago, Dreamgirls and Ain’t Misbehavin’) to play an African-American widow raising a man-child in the segregated South. She is the voice of authority that is eventually the guiding force of Hayes, hence the name Angel Mo.
The rich story in and of itself is more than satisfying, but the singing is nothing less than brilliant. Both Lewis and Sykes deliver show-stopping performances throughout the course of the two-act play. We are treated to a range of music from aria to spirituals (and original compositions by Beatty), a’capella vocals that send shivers up the spine, delightful duets and stunning solos.
Kudos to director Darko Trasnjack and the City Theatre production for staging a moving and inspirational presentation.
Breath & Imagination continues at City Theatre through March 31 with performances Tuesday through Sundays (two performances on Thursday and Friday, weekend matiness). Tickets are $35-$55 (under 30, $15 in advance; 62 and older, $22 two hours before show time); for showtimes and more information call 412-431-CITY (2489) or citytheatrecompany.org.