Roland Hayes (June 3, 1887 – January 1, 1977) was an American lyric tenor. He is considered the first African-American male concert artist to receive wide acclaim both at home and internationally. "BREATH AND IMAGINATION" by Daniel Beaty, opened downtown at the Allen Theatre, produced by the first professional regional theatre in the country, the Cleveland Play House. It is a soaring tale of Roland Hayes and his rise from the fields of Georgia, to performing at Fisk University, Buckingham Palace, and then on to international acclaim.
Author Marva Carter summed up Hayes' life and career:
"Hayes' life of almost ninety years reveals a remarkable story of a man who went from the plantation to the palace, performing before kings and queens, with the finest international and American orchestras, in segregated communities before blacks and whites alike. He was of small stature, dignified manner, and non-violent persuasion. He chose to overcome racism by example and in doing so became a trailblazer. When he sang, art became more than polished excellence. It appealed to something universal, something beyond the emotions, and something beyond the intellect, something one could call the soul."
This production, beautifully crafted by director May Adrales, delivers one powerful moment after another, illuminating Haye's spirit, drive and resolve. The story is set upon a stage (brilliantly designed by Rachel Hauck) adorned with classical columns, a piano, and a grandiose tree that glows with the essence of wisdom, illuminates divinity, and with its metallic puffs of leaves, provides comfort for the turbulence of a ground breaking life.
At first, we find Hayes announcing a decision to close a music school, as a result of his family being arrested for sitting in a white-only section of a shoe store, and then being beaten while trying to defend them. Flashbacks allow us to follow Hayes' (magnificently embodied by Cleveland native Elijah Rock) journey from a young child, being reared by his mother Angel Mo' (beautifully played by Daphne Gaines), as he transcends the racist south to become a role model for young blacks everywhere. It is a fascinating story of courage and drive as he faces his father’s death at 11, moving to Chattanooga at 14, and then, at 16, experiencing self-actualization of purpose listening to Caruso for the first time. At 18, Hayes is at Fisk University, receiving the professional training that will transport him to eventual international acclaim. There are many lessons to be learned. Watching them be taught, lived and interpreted is mesmerizing.
Rock and Gaines turn in spectacular performances. They create a tremendous love story that enters your heart and continues to grow through the entire performance. Hayes, who is equipped with an instrument from above, sings with adept passion, interpreting the storytelling and performance pieces with classical aplomb. Gaines provides her own sizzle by providing enough soul and vocal comfort food to placate the hardest of hearts. Each one delivers over and over again, but I will admit that "Over My Head" by Rock, and "Don't You Weep When I'm Gone" had me emotionally raw.
Throughout the play, there is another actor and musician (the clever and accomplished Tom Frey), knocking it out of the park. He takes on a myriad of roles that include: Accompanist/Officer/Preacher/Pa/Mr. Calhoun/Miss Robinson/Frenchman/ King George V. Quite an undertaking, but Frey makes each character different and entertaining, whether providing levity, racism, or unsettled emotion, and his deft musicality comes across loud and clear from the keyboard.
Watching this play, I realized I was watching several love stories unfold: The love between a mother and her son, constantly reinforcing him to "Keep Your Focus.” The love between a son and his mother, so strong he takes her with him when he moves to Boston so she won't be alone. The love between an artist and his craft, an undying passion driven by the soul to embrace a melodic expression that only music can provide.
It is a grand evening supported by great designers of Sound (James C. Swonger), Projections (Jared Mezzocchi), Costumes (Jennifer Moeller), and Lighting (Jeff Nellis), and Music enhanced by the proficient work of Arranger Mike Ruckles and Musical Director Rahn Coleman.
Embrace Playhouse Square, visit Cleveland Play House at the Allen Theatre. You will leave enlightened.
Kevin Joseph Kelly
Staff and Cast:
Director: May Adrales
Daphne Gaines: Angel Mo'
Elijah Rock: Roland Hayes
Tom Frey: The Accompanist
February 14 - March 9
2:30pm and 8pm Saturdays
$15-$55 Reserved Seating
Order Tickets Online
Cleveland Play House at Playhouse Square
Allen Theater Complex
1407 Euclid Avenue
Cleveland, OH 44115