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Pop Filter Hot Pick: City Theatre presents the world premiere of Daniel Beaty's Breath & Imagination

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Traditional spirituals, classical music, original songs--and the remarkable life story of vocalist Roland Hayes (1887 – 1977)--are converging this month in City Theatre's world premiere production of Daniel Beaty’s Breath & Imagination.

The remarkable life and career of vocalist Roland Hayes (1887 – 1977)--the first African-American male concert artist to receive worldwide acclaim and success--comes to life on the City Theatre stage via a moving production featuring more than 20 selections of music that span spirituals, classical compositions and original songs.

A classical vocalist and lyric tenor, Hayes is considered the first African-American male concert artist to receive wide acclaim both at nationally and internationally.

Continuing City Theatre's 38th season, the production is an opportunity to showcase musical, lyrical, acting and writing talents of the play's creative and production team. Directed by Darko Tresnjak, Breath & Imagination runs on City Theatre’s Mainstage through March 31st. Don't miss a special Opening Night performance on Friday, March 15th at 8 p.m.

Inspired by history

A co-production of Hartford Stage and City Theatre, the riveting music-filled play is directly inspired by Hayes' life. Born in rural Curryville, Georgia, on June 3, 1887, Hayes' journey took him to the stages of Europe, where he became the first African-American classical vocalist to be heard around the world and gain international fame as a concert performer.

"Hayes was selling out concert halls during his time, yet he is not well known today. That is one of the reasons that Daniel Beaty wanted to write this play," says Emily Price, with City Theatre. Price also says that City Theatre had such a rewarding experience working with the playwright on Through the Night, that they wanted to work on this next project with him.

The son of former slaves Fanny and William Hayes, he discovered his voice as a young boy singing spirituals in church and later as a member of the Fisk Jubilee Singers at Nashville's Fisk University in Nashville. Hayes would go on to became a very popular performer, appearing at legendary concert houses such as Carnegie Hall in New York and Symphony Hall in Boston, where he praised for his abilities and linguistic skills with songs in French, German and Italian. Hayes' concerts included spirituals, and because many of them had never been written down, the singer arranged them himself for orchestral accompaniment.

Theater-goers will come to understand Hayes' difficult road to stardom, symbolized by the bright yellow shoes he wore that were given to him by his mother--his Angel Mo'--who also figures prominently in the play.

The play chronicles his inspiring journey from a plantation in Georgia, to singing for King George and Queen Mary of England, and ultimately to paving the way for African-American artists such as Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson. Hayes later taught at Black Mountain College and Boston University and is the recipient of numerous honorary doctoral degrees and awards, including the NAACP Spingarn Medal.

Helping to bring Hayes' story to life, including his passionate ambition to succeed as an artist, is a drama filled with a blend of soulful spirituals, compelling words and graceful classical music.

The creative team

Portraying Roland Hayes is renowned African-American baritone Jubilant Sykes, whose vocal talents spans classical, pop and gospel genres. A native of Los Angeles, Sykes has performed with Christopher Parkening, and has appeared at top international venues such as the Metropolitan Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center, London's Barbican Centre, Apollo Theater, Hollywood Bowl, and the New Orleans Jazz Festival. In 2009, Sykes performed the role of the Celebrant in the Grammy Award-nominated recording of Leonard Bernstein's Mass, with the Morgan State University Choir and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Kecia Lewis (Leap of Faith, Chicago), a New York City-based actor who works on Broadway, performs the role of Roland Hayes’ mother, Angel Mo'. New York City-based actor and pianist Tom Frey (2 Pianos/4 Hands) portrays The Accompanist along with seven additional roles.
 
The production's creative team includes David P. Gordon (scenic), Fabio Toblini (costume), York Kennedy (lighting), Jane Shaw (sound), Mike Ruckles (musical direction and arrangements), Carlyn Aquiline (dramaturgy), Claudia Hill-Sparks (vocal and text coaching), and Craig Handel (fight choreography).

Breath & Imagination marks the second play by award-winning actor, singer, writer, and composer Daniel Beaty to be produced by City Theatre, following last year's critically acclaimed solo work, Through the Night. Beaty started work on the script for Breath several years ago. Beaty received his BA in English and music from Yale University, and his MFA in acting from the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. The recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the Louis Sudler Prize for Excellence in the Arts, Beaty has also worked in music and film, authored children's books and is adjunct professor in Columbia University's Graduate School of the Arts.
 
Breath & Imagination is directed by Darko Tresnjak, who was artistic director of San Diego's Old Globe Shakespeare Festival from 2004 to 2009. A leading American theatre director, Tresnjak is the recipient of an Alan Schneider Award for Directing Excellence, a T.C.G. National Theater Artist Residency Award, a Boris Sagal Directing Fellowship, an NEA New Forms Grant, two Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Individual Artist Fellowships, and three San Diego Critics Circle Awards.

Tresnjak grew up in Yugoslavia, the US and Poland, and attended Swarthmore College and Columbia University. He has also studied at the Martha Graham School, performed with numerous Philadelphia dance and theatre companies, and toured across the US and Japan with Mum Puppettheatre. Hartford Stage’s artistic director designate, Tresnjak lives in Hartford, Connecticut.

Matinees of Breath & Imagination will be performed on Wednesday, March 20th and Wednesday, March 27th at 1 p.m. There will be no evening performance on Wednesday, March 27th.

Photographs courtesy Hartford Stage/T. Charles Erickson.

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