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Musical Drama Review

Daniel Beaty’s “Breath and Imagination”
A Sublime Story of Roland Hayes

by Jennifer Kreingold
January 2015

Breath & Imagination (a play with music)
By Daniel Beaty
Directed by David Dower
Starring: Elijah Rock as Roland Hayes
               Harriett D. Foy as Angel Mo
               Nehal Joshi as Teacher and Others
               Jonathan Mastro as Music Director/Accompanist, etc
Emerson Paramount Theater, Boston, Massachusetts
January 27-February 8, 2015

“He (Roland Hayes) was to give a concert in Berlin. But before he arrived in Berlin, a newspaper had been spread all over the city asking, how can this Black man from the cotton fields of Georgia be expected to sing our wonderful lieder? He will do nothing but desecrate them; he'll make a mockery of them, etc.  When he appeared on the concert stage, he was greeted with boos and hisses. He told me that he had never been so frightened in all his life, as at that moment. He just stood there. And while he was standing there, he signaled his accompanist to change the order of the program. And he began to sing “Du bist die Ruh',” which was one of the favorite lieder of the German people at that time. He sang it so beautifully; they stopped hissing and started listening.  Now, the greatest sign of approval at that time was the pounding of walking sticks, which all the gentlemen carried, on the floor. So halfway through the song, the pounding of the sticks started. There was so much noise, that by the time he reached the last note, it couldn't even be heard, because the audience was up on their feet already. And after that, he quietly continued with the rest of the program.” 

                                               — From “Interview with Afrika Hayes” by Schiller Institute, 1994

Photo Credit : Mike Ritter/Ritterbin Photography

Breath and Imagination, a play with music written by Daniel Beaty and currently playing at the Paramount Theater in Boston, Massachusetts, is a beautiful story inspired by the rich life and struggle of  the great American tenor, Roland Hayes (1887 to 1977), presented in poetic dialogue interwoven with Spirituals and song. 

In today's society, when modern art, theater and music, is all degraded, ugly and sexualized, the audience member often leaves the theater feeling worse at the end of the performance.  Tonight’s performance of Breath and Imagination was a truly inspired evening, in the spirit of Friedrich Schiller, because it was clear that the audience members left the theater inspired and provoked to address some of the deep social problems that were demonstrated in the play. Obviously the racial divide and violence that Hayes and countless other African-Americans and minorities have experienced, is heavily on American’s minds, given the recent Ferguson and New York incidents, but what is most provocative is how Beauty truthfully portrayed Roland Hayes as a universal artist who responded to these social injustices in a dignified way. Given that it was Opening Night, the playwright, Daniel Beaty, and Roland Hayes’s daughter, Afrika Hayes, were both in attendance, and the drama was followed by an open dialogue between the audience and a panel of community leaders, on the problems of racism, and related issues in Boston, in which this reviewer participated.

This Singspiel [1]

Photo Credit : Mike Ritter/Ritterbin Photography

The play opens with "Roland" speaking to the audience about a music school he is starting, on the plantation on which he was raised, and then the time changes to when he is a young boy with his mother at church, and thus his life unfolds before your eyes.  This was done masterfully by Elijah Rock; he was able to suddenly be transformed from the older Roland remembering his life, to the young boy at church with his mother and then to the eighteen-year-old young adult Roland, hearing Enrico Caruso's voice singing “Una furtiva lagrima.”  Upon hearing Caruso, sheer joy overtakes his spirit, and he is inspired to try to sing Classical song. The audience member witnesses his realization that European Classical music, in this case, German Lieder, deals with the same human emotional qualities that the African-American Spirituals, so close to his heart, contained. This is clearly evident in the true story, as told by his daughter, Afrika Hayes (see above), of Hayes profound experience of his performance in Berlin, Germany in 1927.[2]        

What also stood out, played brilliantly by Harriet D. Foy (Angel Mo), was the role of his mother, a strong religious woman, insisting he attend church throughout his childhood and challenged him to be strong and dignified, despite the difficult roads of racism and economic hardship.  A third character, played by the talented Nehal Joshi, was a multitude of characters, including Hayes various voice teachers, the preacher from his childhood, and others.  The underlying musical fabric was woven by the on-stage pianist, Jonathan Mastro, playing from beginning to end, the energized Spirituals and heart-felt songs.

Roland Hayes, the renowned American tenor, earned international acclaim by singing classical and operatic music on the concert stage. Initially compelled to arrange and promote his own concerts, Hayes eventually became the highest-paid tenor in the world, despite the racial barriers that often excluded African Americans from careers in classical music. Roland Hayes grew up singing African American spirituals that had been passed down for generations. In Chattanooga he sang in church and on the street for pennies. A music teacher was impressed by his singing ability and offered him music lessons. Hayes wanted an education, but he had to drop out of school to help support his family and worked at many jobs. When he was twenty, Hayes entered Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, as a preparatory student, for he had less than a sixth-grade education. He hired tutors to help him catch up academically, and eventually he became a Fisk student and a member of the famous Fisk Jubilee Singers. At the same time he worked as a servant in order to support himself. When he moved to Louisville, Kentucky, he found a job at a silent movie theater, singing offstage so that people could hear his voice but not see his skin color. When Hayes was in Louisville, the president of Fisk University invited him to be the lead tenor for the Fisk Jubilee Singers' tour in Boston, Massachusetts. He accepted the invitation, and the trip changed his life. [From the New Georgia Encyclopedia:]


The audience was visibly moved by this play, many to tears, and at an informal panel discussion afterward, led by the playwright, many of the panelists expressed frustration at today’s culture in various ways. At one point, a young woman brought up "economic divisions" and the "need to redistribute resources.  A panelist brought up art as a "catalyst" for change, and this idea was expressed in a faint way by many other people in the audience.  This writer approached the microphone and brought up her personal experiences working with renowned baritone (and Schiller Institute Board Member) William Warfield and accompanist Sylvia Olden Lee, who, like Roland Hayes (and with Roland Hayes, personally), represented a true American culture which was dignified and profound.  The culture is being destroyed and lost, and the real issue underlying these problems is the economic collapse now devastating the cities and the nation, which, to address, requires the shutdown of Wall Street.  The panelists were invited to join the Schiller Institute's efforts to create a world without war, and to help create a new Golden Renaissance, including signing the petition to get the United States to join the with BRICS nations efforts.



[1] The Singspiel is a musical work or opera in German, often performed in the latter part of the 18th century. It was characterized by spoken dialogue interspersed with arias and songs, which transitioned to such Classical works as Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio and Beethoven’s Fidelio.

[2] "Ich grolle nicht" ("I Bear No Grudge") is the ninth song of Dichterliebe (Poet's Love), a cycle of songs composed by Robert Schumann to a set of poems by Heinrich Heine. It requires a profound understanding of poetical irony, as well as a lyrical ability to bring out all the ironies embedded in that song as well as the entire cycle. See the translation at


Related Pages

Reviews page

Join the Schiller Institute – Mail In Membership Form (PDF)

Interview Afrika Hayes: Growing Up With Roland Hayes

Dialogue with Sylvia Olden Lee, Pianist and Vocal Coach

‘Save the African-American Spititual’: A Dialogue with William Warfield and Sylvia Olden Lee

The African-American Spiritual and the Resurrection of Classical Art: Not Force, But Beauty, Will Change America

FIDELIO Magazine Archive

Book Review: A Biography of Emma Azalia Hackley, 1867-1922 African-American Singer and Social Activist

Education page