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City Theatre work remembers first African-American classical vocalist Roland Hayes

| Friday, March 8, 2013, 8:57 p.m.
Kecia Lewis-Evans and Jubilant Sykes in City Theatre's 'Breath & Imagination,' by Daniel Beaty. Credit: Hartford Stage/T. Charles Erickson
Jubilant Sykes and Kecia Lewis-Evans in City Theatre's 'Breath & Imagination,' by Daniel Beaty. Credit: Hartford Stage/T. Charles Erickson
Jubilant Sykes in City Theatre's 'Breath & Imagination,' by Daniel Beaty. Credit: Hartford Stage/T. Charles Erickson
Kecia Lewis-Evans and Jubilant Sykes in City Theatre's 'Breath & Imagination,' by Daniel Beaty. Credit: Hartford Stage/T. Charles Erickson
Kecia Lewis-Evans as Angel Mo' in City Theatre's 'Breath & Imagination,' by Daniel Beaty. Credit: Hartford Stage/T. Charles Erickson
Jubilant Sykes as Roland Hayes in City Theatre's 'Breath & Imagination,' by Daniel Beaty. Credit: Hartford Stage/T. Charles Erickson
Tom Frey as The Accompanist in City Theatre's 'Breath & Imagination,' by Daniel Beaty. Credit: Hartford Stage/T. Charles Erickson

When Daniel Beaty first heard Roland Hayes' voice on a CD, Beaty was an undergraduate at Yale.

“I was stunned that I had never heard of this remarkable man, who was the first (African-American classical vocalist),” says Beaty, who received his bachelor of arts in English and music from Yale in 1998.

Born in Georgia in 1887, Hayes overcame poverty and prejudice to become a world-renowned singer with a musical repertoire of classic and traditional spiritual music. By the mid-1920s, he was the highest-paid tenor in the world, performing concerts in the great performance halls of Europe and on recordings.

Hayes died in 1977. But Beaty's encounter with Hayes' recordings began a relationship that has continued for almost two decades.

What kept Hayes from being better known was that he was a hard-working artist who avoided scandal, Beaty says. “He was a consummate artist who loved his wife and his daughter. ... He was a very sweet, gentle, kind man with a passion for music.”

During his career as a singer and playwright, Beaty has developed many pieces for the stage, including his one-man play “Through the Night,” which he performed at City Theatre last season.

“Many different works speak to me or haunt me at different times,” Beaty says.

But telling the story of Hayes' life was the project to which he kept returning.

When “Through the Night” proved popular and occupied his evenings with performance dates around the country, Beaty found his days were free to write and focus on bringing Hayes' story to the stage.

The result — “Breath & Imagination” — plays through March 31 at City Theatre as a co-production with Hartford Stage Company in Hartford, Conn.

An ensemble work for three performers, “Breath & Imagination” uses an abundance of traditional spirituals and classical pieces, as well as original songs written by Beaty, to tell the story of Hayes' drive to become an artist who expresses himself through music.

“At its core is the love between a mother and a son and the question of how does one blaze a path that's not been traveled before,” Beaty says.

City Theatre describes “Breath & Imagination” as a music-filled play.

But Beaty is reluctant to burden it with labels, such as musical, near-opera or a play with music.

“I think it's better not to put a categorization on it. I often push boundaries,” he says. “The main question is: What is the best way to tell the story? Whenever possible, I looked for a song that had been created.”

At other times, a character's need to express inner emotions called for an original song, he says.

Actor Jubilant Sykes, who plays Hayes, says the demands of the role and the abundance of music make it the hardest thing he has ever done.

“I live a hermit's life. I do nothing once I leave the stage. It's the life I chose,” says Sykes, who considers himself an actor and a singer. “Acting is something I wanted to do. It's very satisfying. Singing is like breathing. It's a necessity.”

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or acarter@tribweb.com.

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