Sykes says "Breath & Imagination" is bringing all of his worlds together: classical, spiritual and acting in a story about a man that he connects with emotionally.
"I'm a lot like Hayes was as a kid: insecure, kind of gangly, who only knows that he wants to create something that comes from deep inside him, not to just be famous. In that, I got him."
The son of former slaves and tenant farmers, Hayes was born in 1877 and grew up on a plantation in Curryville, Ga. He began singing spirituals in church before turning to the classical music world after hearing phonograph recordings of Italian tenor Enrico Caruso. His career on the classical stage performing before kings and queens and venues such as Carnegie Hall, began in the 1920s and continued for about two decades. From the 1940s until he retired in 1973, he sang sparingly. He died in 1977 at the age of 89 in Boston.
Playwright Beaty first learned of Hayes when he was an undergrad student studying music and English at Yale in the mid-'90s.
"My particular love in music has always been the spiritual," says Beaty. "I went to the School of Music Library to look through every CD that had spirituals. And then I heard the beauty of Roland Hayes' voice and was shocked that I had never heard of him. It was very perplexing to me.
"He came before Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson who took their place in the cultural discourse in a very public way. Hayes placed his politics aside for his art. He was a musician first and upheld the role of the spirituial in the classical form along with the beauty of the African-American voice."
When actors Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2004, they brought along Beaty as their guest. At the gala reception Beaty met the Virginia Williams, the mother of mayor Anthony Allen Williams of Washington D.C. "For some reason I said I wanted to do a play based on then life of Roland Hayes and she said, 'I'm his niece." (She studied opera and once sanve for Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House.)
They exchanged information and those materials about her uncle's life helped spur the project on for Beaty. But his research was mostly limited to newspaper clippings and a biography written by "a man who was friendly with Hayes in his later years, who wrote the book as if he was Roland Hayes."
Beaty describes his play with music as "an imagined biography" and "inspired" by the life of Hayes. "This is a true play and not a re-statement of history but offers a perspective of the man and how he became 'the first.'"
Beaty says at the core of his vision of Hayes was the singer's "courage to believe in himself, as well as the support of those he loved who also believed in him and had made the seemingly impossible possible."
That's when Beaty decided to make the other pivotal character in the work his mother, Fanny Hayes, a former slave. "There's a magnitude of distance that was traveled in those two lives."
Beaty who is a singer and has performed many of his own works himself — as well as the role of Hayes in its workshops and readings — decided not to take on the leading role for the Hartford production, which is being staged by the theater's artistic director, Darko Tresnjak.
"I wanted to make sure this play had the best opportunity to clarify itself and allow myself to step outside the work and really just be a playwright." Beaty first emerged as a playwright and performer in the off-Broadway, Obie award-winning solo show in which he performed, "Emergency." Beaty's six-actor "Resurrection" received its world premiere at Hartford Stage when he was an Aetna Voices playwright-in-residence. He later revised the script as "Through the Night" in which he performed all the characters.
Beaty says he wanted Sykes in the role because he reflects what others wrote about Hayes' temperament: "a kind, gentle soul with a generous spirit who was a consummate artist with a uniquely beautiful voice. That how I would describe Jubilant."
BREATH & IMAGINATION begins previews Thursday, Jan. 10 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St. Press night is Wednesday Jan. 16. The show continues through Feb. 9. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 and 7:30 p.m. There are also matinees on select Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $26.50 to $93.50. Information: 860-527-5151 and http://www.hartfordstage.org.
Read Frank's blog on theater, the arts and entertainment at http://www.courant.com/curtain. And be the first to know be following Frank on Twitter at http://www.Twitter.com/ShowRiz.