By Karen Bovard
1:10 PM EST, February 4, 2013
Breath & Imagination
Through Feb. 9, Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford, (860) 527-5151, hartfordstage.org
Technique matters. Born of deliberate practice under expert coaching, it's technique that lets great artists catch lightning in a bottle and perform eight strong shows a week. It's something Hartford Stage director Darko Tresnjak learned about early in his performing career as a dancer and puppeteer. It's vital to the wonderfully named Jubilant Sykes, singing star of Breath & Imagination, who began as a boy soprano and emerged as an operatic baritone who has sung on pop stages, in churches, and at the Met. Breath & Imagination tells the story of trailblazing African-American classical singer Roland Hayes — and the journey he took to discover and develop technique.
Before Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price, there was Roland Hayes: son of former slaves, born in Flatwoods, Georgia in 1887 on a poor sharecropping farm, he rose to great prominence as a classical singer. Hayes performed before sellout integrated audiences during the 1920s in Boston and the American South and across Europe. He's credited with bringing the powerful and moving heritage of traditional spirituals into the world of the art song.
As a biographical piece about a little known figure, there's a lot of information to communicate at first, and so Act I suffers some from clunky linear narrative with an educational theater vibe. This is hard to avoid, and tolerable here because it is enlivened with luscious singing and fine performances, touched by humor. The staging is fluid and simple, aided by a set that simultaneously suggests aspects of church, concert hall, school, and home.
All three performers are strong. Jubilant Sykes in the lead role is no spring chicken, and he's formally dressed in a period tux throughout, but he conveys his character as a boy with charming touches of childish movement. We are transported when he finally launches into song, nearly leaving his feet at the final moments of several big anthems, riding forward on an intake of breath that offers us all a moment of suspension and connection before we fall back into quotidian speech.
Kecia Lewis plays Hayes' formidable mother, Angel Mo', with determination and delicacy. She's got a wide range as a singer, both literally and emotionally, and employs much of it. She believes her boy is destined to be a preacher, and tells him "it's a sin to sit on your gift" — which, for me, called up civil rights orator Jesse Jackson's passionate exhortation "How dare you not shine!" Angel Mo is far from convinced that singing is what her boy is meant to do, and this provides sufficient conflict to make the drama personal within the context of historical discrimination.
The third actor, Tom Frey, plays piano throughout and also provides multiple additional characters, ranging across race, class, and gender, from royalty to a brutal abuser to a kindly music teacher. His best turn may actually be done in drag — a transformation that is accomplished on stage in full view of the audience. All three singers are amplified at times, but so unobtrusively and skillfully that there is no interference with our pleasure in the unadorned trained voice.
Playwright Daniel Beaty was Hartford Stage's Aetna New Voices Fellow in 2007-08, and his work Resurrection was featured here several seasons back. He's created a few original songs for this piece, which features traditional spirituals along with portions of art songs beautifully sung in French, German, and Italian. Currently he's collaborating with Dance Theater of Harlem on a spoken word ballet, as well as releasing a children's book and developing new work with Moises Kaufman, best known for The Laramie Project. In 2008-09, the Fellow was Quiara Alegria Hudes, who won the Pulitzer for Water By the Spoonful, which enjoyed an early staging at Hartford. This year's Aetna New Voices fellow is Matthew Lopez, playwright of last season's The Whipping Man. That's quite a string of achievement by rising new playwrights of color with Hartford connections, thanks to both Aetna and Hartford Stage.
If you care about supporting new work for the theater, and broadening the canon to include under-represented voices, you should be part of the audience at Hartford Stage. And with Breath & Imagination, you'll be treated to some inspired singing, delivered with great technique and from the heart, up close.
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