McClain is the director of Breath & Imagination, a play with music about the life and career of African-American classical singer, Roland Hayes, as well as the final production of VSC’s current 36th season. She’s also a veteran actress, who has decades of major film, television and stage roles to her credit; including the recent ratings blockbuster, Whitney, the controversial Angela Bassett directed Lifetime movie where McClain portrayed Aunt Bae.
It is less than a week before previews begin, and the anxiousness of the creative team, including the lead actor and his director, is quite apparent. This is the Philly native’s second time directing a production of Breath & Imagination, written by Daniel Beaty. The first, produced by Colony Theatre in 2013, and serving as the play‘s West Coast premiere, was a huge critical success. She promises, however, that this VA production will be very different, visually, from the “studio placed” staging of that show.
Magical is also a fitting description of the newly acclaimed life of Mr. Roland Hayes, the first African-American classical singer of international note, whose unprecedented success as a black classical performer in the early twentieth century paved the way for music icons like Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson. Besides this remarkable play, which has earned almost universal raves during its regional productions over these past few years, Hayes is also the subject of an expansive new biography that came out in December. Roland Hayes: The Legacy of an American Tenor, published by Indiana University Press, is co-authored by VCU professor, Christopher A. Brooks, and details a triumphant life that lasted from the late nineteenth century till his death on New Year’s Day in 1977. Previously an obscure footnote of American history, the play and book are bringing much deserved attention to Hayes’ life and his many resulting, societal contributions.
Born near Calhoun, Georgia in June of 1887 to parents who worked on the very plantation that they’d toiled on as slaves, Roland was just a pre-teen when his mom moved the family to Tennessee, following the untimely death of his father. Eventually, after performing spirituals and doing church recitals, Roland began studying music at Fisk University, the esteemed Nashville based HBCU, and eventually joined their Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1911.
That legendary a cappella ensemble is largely credited with popularizing Negro spirituals during their international tours dating back to the late nineteenth century. Tradition filled standards such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Go Down, Moses” provided Roland with an early repertoire to build upon. And indeed, as the lyric tenor became one of the highest paid concert artists of his time, in spite of the enormous racism that he still faced as an African-American artist, the American spiritual, which can be traced back, in part, to black enslaved Virginians, was eventually elevated to “high art” that stood shoulder to shoulder with the rest of his European classical repertoire.
Yet those triumphs are not the jumping off point for the play. “The play centers around the moment when his wife and daughter were arrested for sitting in a whites only section of a shoe store,” says McClain. That was in 1942. And that incident gives way to a bit of disgusting police brutality, which is something that the director knows will sadly echo many of today’s headlines. Still, the play with music is not bogged down in the weight of oppression. Audiences get to see Roland’s especially close relationship with his mother, known as Angel Mo’ in the play, and portrayed here by actress Cheryl Freeman. They sing together at points, and it becomes clear that Hayes was initially a reluctant performer. That was until he discovered the “art” of it, upon hearing Italian tenor, Enrico Caruso, for the first time, during a music lesson with Roland’s favorite, Mr. Calhoun, who is portrayed here by actor Andrew Wheeler.
The prestige role of Hayes is being inhabited by singer Travis Pratt, who is most popularly known as a contestant on the eighth season of America’s Got Talent. Parts of Pratt’s background, though, almost eerily mirrors Roland’s, as he is also from a small town in Georgia, and one of many kids. Pratt is the youngest of five, while Roland was amongst six. Beyond that, he remembers having a similar reaction that Hayes had, upon hearing a Donizetti piece, which is captured in the play. “I’ve lived that experience,” he says, while still clearly trying to recover from an admittedly heavy lunch at a downtown restaurant. “It reminds you of why you fell in love with singing…”
Pratt says that “the music in this particular production fits my voice very well.” Recognizable standards, such as “Let’s Have a Union”, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” and “My God is so High” are performed within the play. And even though acting is somewhat new to the professional classical singer, he’s learned so much already, he says, from this first time tackling the role of Hayes. “I’ve learned that there are no shortcuts. You do the work or you don’t get there.”
It was also Breath & Imagination’s existence that really made the Georgia native first aware of who Roland Hayes was, though he was at least familiar with the fellow tenor’s song book, from his years of studying and performing music in the classical vein. “I’m shocked that I had no idea about his story… and now I’m compelled to tell everybody.
The show opens tonight. For more info, click here.