The Colony Theatre’s Breath and Imagination is one of the finest shows on offer in greater LA. It’s one of the finest shows Burbank has ever seen. Musical Director RAHN COLEMAN wasn’t exaggerating when he said to me just before the opening night’s performance, “Nothing will prepare you for what you’re about to see.” He was right.
But first, a little background.
Breath and Imagination is about a pioneering artist and largely forgotten American hero, ROLAND HAYES. He was born in 1887 Georgia, one of seven children. His parents were struggling tenant farmers on the same plantation where his mother had been a slave. His father died when he was 11. He had told him “to use your breath and imagination and call the birds to you.” His widowed mother moved the family to Tennessee. He had to leave school to work in a local iron foundry, where a conveyor belt pulled him into the machinery and injured him badly.
But before his life was over, Roland Hayes had become the first world-renowned, African-American classical singer, who headlined at Carnegie Hall and wowed Europe’s royalty.
As the play opens, it is 1942. Roland Hayes is back in Georgia. He had recently purchased the plantation where his parents had toiled. There, he had just established a musical conservatory where students of all races could study together. Now he is facing his hopeful students. Facing us. He tells us his wife and daughter have just been arrested for trying on shoes in a “white’s only” section of the store. He wonders if, for the safety of his students and family, he should shut down the conservatory.
Roland Hayes reflects back on his life, sharing his life’s story with us…
What. A. Voice. ELIJAH ROCK is Roland Hayes reborn. He had to be. Early on, we hear an actual phonograph recording of the singer that had inspired Roland Hayes: the great Enrico Caruso at the peak of his powers. And so Breath and Imagination throws the cap over a very tall wall for its lead actor. But Elijah leaps over it. And from the moment he dons the cap that recalls Roland Hayes’ boyhood days, we follow him on his hero’s journey.
There are 26 songs in Breath and Imagination, from Spirituals and original pieces to Schumann, Scarlatti, Gluck and Faure. One of Roland Hayes’ biggest artistic struggles was learning to embrace his own African American voice. He had to. Merely imitating the vocal skill of his white counterparts would not be enough. If Roland Hayes was to succeed at all, he had to show the world how his distinctive voice enriched the musical heritage of Europe.
And succeed he did. Nothing prepared his audiences of the 1920’s for the breakthrough singing they were about to hear. Roland Hayes infused classical songs like “Ich grolle nict” with the pathos of the Spiritual while keeping intact the traditional virtues of the German songbook.
And so does Elijah, who succeeds in recreating the magic that enthralled the audiences of 90 years ago. “My own grandmother was a sharecropper,” Elijah said. “My mother was the eldest of 12, and she wanted me to be a preacher just like Roland’s mom.” Elijah spent many a childhood summer in Georgia and felt “the ancestral pull and energy” that Roland Hayes had tapped.
KARAN KENDRICK is an absolute sensation as Roland Hayes’ “Angel Mo’”. It’s her angelic voice that we hear first in Breath and Imagination, and one that takes our breath away in her duets with Elijah, beautiful beyond imagination. “I was raised on hymns and gospel singing,” Karan says. And it shows. As does her ability to convey the richness of Angel Mo’s character. She makes us see the mother who saw the genius in her son, even if she wanted him to express it as a preacher.
KEVIN ASHWORTH is brilliant as the piano accompanist and as the portrayer of all the diverse roles that frame Roland Hayes’ story. Kevin is equally convincing as the snarling Georgia sheriff, the loving-but-doomed father, the rousing preacher man, the sensitive-but-demanding mentor, the visibly-moved-yet-dignified monarch, and in a female turn, the benefactress Miss Robinson.
What a remarkable trio of actors that filled the stage to overflowing with their talent and presence.
It would’ve been easy for the music, enhanced by Rahn’s sensitive arrangements, to overwhelm the play. But Director SAUNDRA McCLAIN kept the audience riveted on her characters whether they were singing or talking. “I always look for the subtext,” Saundra says.
And there are compelling subtexts. Roland Hayes was deeply torn between his need to develop himself as a singer and his felt obligation to look after his mom. It’s the kind of dilemma that has plagued countless families under the heel of poverty and discrimination, and one that came close to derailing Roland’s career. And the Roland Hayes of 1942 is torn between his need to create a lasting legacy and his felt obligation to protect his family. This, too, is a dilemma that has faced many people of color.
By making her characters’ struggles so vivid, Saundra makes their heroism as visible as their talent.
There is another subtext as well. The African slaves grappling with a strange new religion—Christianity—ultimately enriched it with a depth of feeling born out of their suffering, paralleling their impact upon Western music. Playwright DANIEL BEATY’s Breath and Imagination is that rare work that can be taken as a secular sermon or a religious one.
Everything about Breath and Imagination works. The set itself is amazing. “The director wanted it to be elegant and Art Deco, but at the same time rooted to Roland’s upbringing,” explains Scenic Designer SHAUN MOTLEY. And indeed, the set was able to take us through the Georgia woods or into Angel Mo’s humble home as well as the swanky stage. Shaun credits Lighting Designer JARED SAYEG with “doing a great job with the lighting. I provided the canvas but Jared nailed it for us.”
By the end of Breath and Imagination, there were a lot of lumps in a lot of throats. Those of us who go on to learn a bit more about Roland Hayes are not surprised to discover that he also pioneered de-segregated seating back in the mid 1940s during his concerts.
And so the circle is complete. We in 2013 Burbank, an audience of all races coming together in the Colony Theatre, had just received an unforgettable “conservatory” lesson on what it means to be a transformative singer. And we gave an extended, tear-streaked standing ovation to a performance that put “breath and imagination” into a great man’s life, one that deserves a much larger place in our collective American memory.
PERSONAL POSTSCRIPT: I’ve been to Broadway and London’s West End. The Colony’s Breath and Imagination would be a credit to either of these iconic venues. Fellow Burbankers, you have a treasure in your own backyard. You Westsiders, put up with the September heat, come to the Colony and see for yourself.
And to think we nearly lost the Colony! We join Artistic Director BABBRA BECKLEY in thanking Executive Director TRENT STEELMAN and the MARILYN P. & WAYNE H. MEMORIAL FUND for making sure that did not happen.
Breath and Imagination continues through Sunday, October 13. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. Prices range from $25 to $45, with various discounts available. The Colony Theatre is located at 555 N. Third St. (at Cypress). For tickets, call the Colony Theatre Box Office at 818-558-7000 ext. 15 or go online at www.ColonyTheatre.Org.