One of Cleveland’s own, Elijah Rock, is currently starring as African-American trailblazer Roland Hayes in Cleveland Play House’s Breath and Imagination, running through March 9 at the Allen Theatre at PlayhouseSquare.
Breath and Imagination tells the story of Hayes, the first world-renowned African-American classical vocalist. Hayes, born in 1887, grew up on the same Georgia plantation where his mother, Fanny, had been enslaved. He was raised during the Jim Crow era in Chattanooga, Tenn., where he met and studied with teacher Arthur Calhoun, an Oberlin graduate.
“I think the most fascinating aspect of Roland’s story is the fact that there is no one before him who had done what he was embarking upon. He had no reference point,” Rock said.
At first, tenor Hayes tried to sound like white European singers. But this play is about him finding his own voice and embracing performing Negro Spiritual music around the world.
“He had sort of a rich, purplish-red sound. People have described the black voice as kind of a fine wine, like a cabernet,” Rock, a baritone-tenor, said.
Cleveland native Rock, a 1994 University School graduate, was a vocal major at the Cleveland Institute of Music’s Young Artist Program. He also performed with Lyric Opera Cleveland, the Cleveland Orchestra Children’s Chorus, Cleveland Opera Children’s Chorus and Karamu House before moving to New York. Also a big band jazz singer and a tap dancer, Rock has lived in Los Angeles for the last seven years.
In this memory play, Rock portrays the singer from age 8 to his late 40s. He previously performed Breath and Imagination in its West Coast premiere at Colony Theatre Company in Burbank, Calif., in August.
Hayes, who had a fifth-grade education, was so passionate about singing, he still pursued studies at Fisk University, where he was a soloist with the Fisk Jubilee Singers. He became the first African-American to perform at Boston’s Symphony Hall and went on to sing for kings and queens across Europe.
After Hayes began studying voice with Arthur Hubbard in Boston, his mother continued to wash clothes for white families there. She didn’t understand how a black man could make a living singing.
“She was just all about keeping him [Hayes] grounded in his faith,” Rock said. “He was using the voice God gave him.”
Even after achieving international stardom, Hayes experienced hatred and prejudice in both the North and the South, where he was brutally beaten by police in front of his wife and child after he had bought the very plantation where his mother had been enslaved.
The play, written by Daniel Beaty and directed by May Andrales, has a three-person cast including Tom Frey as the accompanist as well as five other roles, and Daphne Gaines as Hayes’ mother, Angel Mo’.
Rock, who formerly had an Off-Broadway jazz revue in New York, has worked in film for about five years in Los Angeles. He continues to study classical voice.
“I never lost my classical technique, which is the blessing of it all, because I’m trained in bel canto,’’ an Italian opera style of singing, he said.
Rock sings plenty in this inspirational play, whose title refers to a quote Hayes adopted from his father as both an artistic concept and an approach toward life.
“I can guarantee you it’s probably one of the most incredible shows you’ll see,” Rock said of Breath and Imagination. “It’s an experience you wouldn’t expect to have in the theater.”
Tickets cost from $45 to $72, $15 for students, or $25 for under age 35. Call 216-241-6000 or see www.clevelandplayhouse.com.
• Musical theater enthusiasts can catch their favorite singing sorority girl in Legally Blonde at Kent State University, E. Turner Stump Theatre, Center for the Performing Arts, 1325 Theatre Drive.
The School of Theatre and Dance will present the show Thursdays through Sundays through March 2 under the direction of assistant professor Amy Fritsche and student Tim Welsh, assistant director. The musical comedy, starring Mackenzie Duan as Elle, follows the California girl as she enters Harvard Law School in an effort to win her boyfriend back.
Tickets cost $16; $14 for KSU alumni, faculty and staff; $12 for senior citizens, $8 for non-KSU students 18 and under and free for KSU students. Call 330-672-2787 or see www.theatre.kent.edu.
• The Grammy Award-winning Soweto Gospel choir will perform for one night at the University of Akron’s E.J. Thomas Hall at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday as part of an 11-week national tour celebrating 10 years with the show Divine. The ensemble has collaborated with artists including Bono and U2, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Robert Plant, Celine Dion, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Peter Gabriel, Josh Grobin and Andre Rieu.
The choir, from Soweto, South Africa, counts as their spiritual fathers the late Nelson Mandela as well as Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Tickets are $26.50 to $36.50. Call 330-972-7570 or 800-745-3000.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.