You’ve heard his music, but you might not realize why his voice was silenced.
Donny Hathaway, a gifted, tormented genius, suffered from mental illness and at age 33, plunged to his death from an Essex Hotel window on Jan. 13, 1979. “Twisted Melodies,” Kelvin Roston Jr.’s one-man show, is set on that day inside his hotel room — and inside his head.
A paranoid schizophrenic, Hathaway battled demons throughout his adult life. Because he didn't keep up a rigorous prescription medicine routine, his behavior became increasingly erratic and those who loved him couldn’t help.
Roston, now an actor based in Chicago, is poetry in motion as the soul singer-songwriter. He began tinkering with the idea as an intern at the Black Rep, caring passionately about this man and his music.
After a successful Chicago run, Roston has returned home to share this intimate look at Hathaway, who grew up in St. Louis, raised by a grandmother in the Carr Square housing project. Hathaway graduated from Vashon High School and attended Howard University on a fine arts scholarship.
Roston conveys the struggles in a relatable way, as Hathaway is convinced someone is stealing his music and sound by hooking his brain up to a machine. He also displays expert musicianship and fervent vocals.
The technical elements help tell this story, with powerful projected images by Mark Wilson, sound design by Rick Sims and lighting design by Sean Savoie adding much polish and depth to the production.
This 90-minute show focuses on the effects of the disease, and how it can rob everything. When Donny describes the side effects of the pills he takes, it is a sobering, sad moment.
The Grammy winner secured his place in popular music through duets with Roberta Flack, his signature cover of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” and his holiday staple “This Christmas.”
So of course, music is seamlessly integrated, and the audience participates in “The Ghetto,” his first hit. He ends with an exquisite rendition of “A Song for You.”
Reminiscences of his childhood, college years, collaboration with Flack, meeting his wife, the love for his daughter, and the tragic unraveling are included in a poignant, thoughtful way.
His song may be over, but Hathaway’s music speaks volumes.
If another spotlight on complicated mental health issues can lead us to further understanding, “Twisted Melodies” will have accomplished more than good theater.
- When: Through May 1
- Where: The Black Rep, Edison Theatre, Washington University
- Information: 314-534-3807 or www.blackrep.org