Dallas — On its surface, the story of Roland Hayes is an African-American success story. As the first black internationally recognized classical vocalist, his persistence and acclaimed paved the way for the likes of Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson shortly thereafter. Now, the genre is full of accomplished black artists — Leontyne Price, Denyce Graves, Eric Owens, Lawrence Brownlee, and the late Jessye Norman, to name a few.
With such an inspirational arc to his story, it would be easy to adapt a heartwarming, feel-good narrative. However, writer and composer Daniel Beaty, too, is a black artist, and when he wrote Breath & Imagination, based on the story of Roland Hayes, he did well to capture the full scope of his experience. The work is receiving its regional premiere via African American Repertory Theater.
Born into poverty in 1887 Georgia, Hayes was raised on the tenant farm where his mother was formerly a slave. At age 11, his father died after being denied hospital admittance following a factory injury. From these humble beginnings, Hayes would forge a distinguished career in classical music, but it would not be without its struggles — particularly those unique to the black male experience in a white dominated world.
The fulcrum of Daniel Beaty’s plot rests on an incident that occurred in 1942, when Hayes was assaulted by police and arrested, along with his wife, after his wife and daughter mistakenly sat in the whites-only section of a shoe store. The movement of the drama merges past and present to culminate in a wholly harrowing revelation, set against beautiful musical treatments that blends negro spirituals with classical standards and a few original numbers.
The AART production brings immediacy to Daniel Beaty’s script, through an effective mix of vocal fortitude and dramatic layering. With a sparse cast, and minimal staging, director Regina Washington makes good use of AART’s new home at El Centro College Performance Hall in downtown Dallas.
Fort Worth native Malcom Beaty offers a sturdy vocal portrayal as Hayes. He does well to bridge the gaps between the multiple musical stylings demanded by the part, with a rich tenor that translates effectively between the spirituals and the classical pieces. He demonstrates a controlled use of registers to distinguish his vocal character. Hayes, who was a full-bodied lyric tenor, was known for introducing the “negro sound” into the genre, and Malcom Beaty does well to honor that. Dramatically, he is a bit one-note, laying heavy on a boisterous, oratorical resonance as the present-day Hayes, but his childlike portrayals are light and, at times, humorous.
Playing opposite him is Denise Baker as Hayes’ mother Angel Mo’. She is a vocal powerhouse, with a deftness of skill that holds up effortlessly against her counterpart’s large voice. Baker, a seasoned pop vocalist, is at once warm and stern, convincingly devout with her Christian sensibilities.
Music director Scott Eckert, in his AART debut, manages the demands of eight supporting roles with effect. Positioned almost entirely at the piano situated at the center of the stage, Eckert is earnest in his dramatic portrayals of Mr. Calhoun (Hayes’ first formal instructor), Miss Robinson (his college professor), and the officer who savagely assaults him, among others. Eckert’s piano accompaniment is also solid and musically sensitive to his partners.
Prudence Jones’ set and lighting design is minimal and affective — a diaphanous white cloth hangs in the background, beset with rustic window frames, against which warm yellow and red lights suggest the changing moods from scene to scene.
Washington’s direction relies appropriately on the vocal prowess of her players. She does well to temper the musical elements with contrasting dramatic interpretations, providing the necessary nuance to capture the complexity of this esteemed, troubled man. It’s encouraging, in that the reality of experience is not lost in the glow, but rather celebrated, because, for better or worse, there was a particularity about being a black artist in America then, just as there is now.