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Regional Premiere
A musical by Daniel Beaty

African American Repertory Theater

ROLAND HAYES – Malcolm Beaty
ANGEL MO’ – Denise Baker
ANGEL MO’ Understudy – Yolonda Williams

STAGE MANAGER – Dashantanaya Lee
SET CONSTRUCTION & PAINTING – Sarah McGrath, Mark Jones, Caleb Badgley, Jessica Privett & Cheyenne Nash
SOUND DESIGN – Bear Hamilton
PROPERTY DESIGN – Angela Washington
LIGHT TECH – Billy Warren
SOUND TECH – Sharanna Hunter
PRODUCTION ASSISTANTS – De’Aveyon Murphy & Becky Nuno

Reviewed Performance: 2/7/2020

Reviewed by Travis McCallum, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

African American history often speaks about the struggles of blacks in slavery highlighting stories about MLK, Rosa Parks and many other activists who fought for freedom from oppression. What gets left out of the history books is the celebration of black culture and the artistic contributions it made to America. Breath and Imagination seeks to remedy this missing page by telling the story of a prodigy singer from the Negro race.

As Director Regina Washington puts it, “Breath and Imagination explores one man’s determination to be an artist despite seemingly insurmountable odds.”

The man, and our protagonist for the show, is none other than historical celebrity Roland Hayes played by Malcolm Beaty. He is an American lyric tenor and composer lauded for his linguistic skills demonstrated with songs in French, German and Italian.

The musical performance follows his life journey from youth to adulthood, accompanied with the lovely Angel ‘Mo (Denise Baker)— his mother. She is Roland’s rock and grooms him to be a man, steering his course when he becomes lost.

Scott A. Eckert is both musical director and actor on set playing 8 unique supporting characters to drive the plot forward. Most notable is his command of the grand piano staged as the centerpiece prop.

This show was heavily musically based with an emphasis on the raw voice talent from our actors. I found myself enjoying the beautiful sounds coming out of the mouths of its source. I’m not a music expert so I won’t claim to understand the difference between baritones and sopranos, but Roland had incredible range and often he would sing long notes without pausing for a breath.

The music style crossed between spirituals and classical masterpieces. Roland sang us songs in different tongues which I found especially pleasing because it allowed me to focus on emotion the music brought rather than the lyrics that gave it meaning.

Angel ‘Mo’s singing reminded me most of the church. Her voice could rumble and fill the room from anywhere she stood. Sometimes she was hidden behind a window in the far upstage corner. It occurred to me that all the sound we heard in the intimate auditorium of El Centro college was coming directly from the actor’s themselves. There were no mic’s hooked up. Eckert was actually playing the piano and the melodies were no pre-recordings.

It’s almost like you are paying to see both a play AND a concert. That’s quite a steal if you ask me.

There were the occasional sound effects to illustrate a scene because the set itself was static. But it’s hardly noticeable because you are so engrossed in the actors and ambience of the dialogue.

I rather liked how set designer prudence jones laid out everything. In the center, raised on a small platform is the piano along with a few more props. Music player, music stand and chair. This represented the classroom and concert hall for performances. On both the left and right sides we had a whole slew of other scenes we needed to imagine.

Roland’s house. The church. The forest where Roland’s dad taught him about the birds.

To complement the set and singing, lights illuminated the key focus of attention. I enjoyed the color choices to match the emotions the director wanted the audience to feel. Of special note is whenever the police beat Roland, the lights would flash red to give extra emphasis on the violence that occurred.

The flow of the show had an amazing story arc. I felt like every beat and line was perfectly executed. Watching Eckert shift between police officer, teacher, and even the king of English helped to lighten the mood. His female impression was especially entertaining.

I did feel that actor movement dragged during scenes. In certain places it was fine—like when Roland is sighing ‘I’m tired’ but there are other times where tension and explodes and the music gets intense and you expect the actors to match that intensity… oh well.

Costumes were really cool! Both Roland and Eckert wore these formalwear Tuxedo’s to show the luxurious lives singers live in the orchestra world. And Angel Mo’ wore the complete opposite—a simple dress that you would see maids wearing in the house. This speaks to the different lifestyles each of the character’s wanted which I thought was an interesting artistic choice.

It would have been nice to see a costume change for Roland when he was a boy as opposed to a man, but I understand there wasn’t much room logistically to make that happen. Still…

One of my favorite things about the story is this idea the actor’s brought to life. Roland is trying to be like all the great artists of the time and he’s constantly told his voice is different and special. He takes that as a bad thing and gets upset, thinking it’s because he’s a negro. Angel ‘Mo persuades him that this voice is a gift from God, and that he should embrace it and share it with the world.

The story arc shifts from trying to impress with classic, to inspiring with the spirituals. I really liked watching this show and seeing a different side of theatre I don’t get exposed to too often. I think AART brings a lot to the table in the DFW theatre scene and should be a premiere destination for audience members more often.

Maybe cut back on the 30 minute pre-show filled with announcements, thank-you’s and a monologue on what we are about to watch. Theatre is about discovery, so let the audience learn through the actors.

Breath & Imagination
Performed at El Centro Performance Hall
801 Main Street, Dallas, TX 75202
February 7 – February 29
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