~Reviewed by Doc Lawrence
Georgia native Roland Hayes was once a concert headliner in Europe and American cities like New York and Boston. His story about childhood in Calhoun, Georgia and Chattanooga, Tennessee is in part one of survival and a path to success. Art Station Theatre’s production of Daniel Beaty’s musical play, Breath & Imagination, begins in rural North Georgia where Hayes and his mother, a former slave, struggle after the death of the father. From their humblest beginnings, the song-filled production becomes an interpretive tour de force of a young man’s rise to international acclaim as a classically trained vocal soloist.
What makes this production so compelling is the powerful blend of Hayes mother, “Angel Mo,'” portrayed by Atlanta’s legendary song stylist/actress Theresa Hightower and a young man with a very bright future, Marcellis Cutler, who, for almost two hours literally becomes Roland Hayes. Ms. Hightower, a poplar fixture on prestigious performance stages throughout the South, joins the electric handsome Cutler in duets worthy of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. The play allows Ms. Hightower to glow as the quintessential African-American mother who will sacrifice flesh and blood for her son, regularly expressing her devotion and measured discipline with the best lines in the show.
|Marcellis Cutler and Theresa Hightower|
Born in 1887 near Calhoun, Georgia, Roland Hayes’ parents were struggling tenant farmers on the same plantation where his mother had been a slave. His father, part Native-American, died when Hayes was 11, but told him “to use your breath and imagination and call the birds to you.” Angel Mo’ moved the family to Chattanooga where young Roland quit school to work in a local iron foundry, suffering a serious injury leaving him unable to do hard labor.
Tragedy opened the door to fame and fortune. Nashville’s Fisk University and the Fisk Jubliee Singers counted Roland Hayes as a student and vocalist. A sensitive but demanding voice instructor, portrayed by Tony Hayes, leads him into the classics while encouraging him to embrace the wonders of his natural African voice. The result is miraculous. Roland Hayes became the first world-renowned, African-American classical singer, who headlined at Carnegie Hall, sang with the Boston Symphony and wowed Europe’s royalty.
The play opens in 1942 with Roland Hayes, now successful, back in Georgia where he purchased the plantation where his parents worked the fields, and embarked on a worthy mission to establish a musical conservatory for students of all races. His wife and daughter were arrested for sitting in a “white’s only” section of a Rome, Georgia shoe store resulting in a beating of a protesting Hayes by a local Sheriff. Roland Hayes reflects back on his life, sharing his life’s story with us, while asking if it was safe for his family and students to continue to live and work under the evil potential of violent racism.
He spent the next 50 years living in Boston. The brooding, omnipresent sting of slavery and racism claimed more innocent victims.
Marcellis Cutler as Roland Hayes fulfills a destiny surely ordained by the universal powers of acting and singing. Look for this fast-rising star in many productions soon.
Theresa Hightower is simply lovable as Angel Mo’ providing emotional connections ranging from good humor to despair. Her singing voice, authentic in every way possible, is perfect, helping to tell a story that needed telling.
Through June 10.
Tickets: www.artstation.org; (770) 469.1105
Roland Hayes recordings can be found on Amazon, YouTube and The Smithsonian.
“The Life of Christ.” 1954
“Negro Spirituals.” 1955
“The Art of Roland Hayes.” 1990
There are remembrances of Roland Hayes today in Calhoun, Georgia and the University of Tennessee/Chattanooga. His daughter, Africa, lives in Boston.