The name Donny Hathaway probably doesn’t ring too many bells these days—certainly not as many as Stevie Wonder or Roberta Flack, his contemporaries—but you likely sing him every Christmas (“This Christmas”) and hear his influence in pop hits performed by Justin Timberlake and Amy Winehouse, who both cite him as an inspiration. Not only did Hathaway write some catchy music, he cemented his reputation with a Grammy, before committing suicide.
Twisted Melodies, written and performed by Kelvin Roston, Jr., is Hathaway’s story. It’s also the dramatic telling of the demise of a musician gripped by schizophrenia. The year is 1979, and the decade is unmistakable. Hathaway is decked out in a powder blue turtleneck and a brown plaid leisure suit with a long gold chain around his neck, sitting at a keyboard with a cassette recorder at his side. It’s been five or six years since his last album, and he’s struggling, alone in a spare hotel room, to write.
He’s struggling to find notes and melodies while trying to shake the feeling that he’s being watched. That someone, or something, is stealing his sound. That his brain has been wired to a machine. That his life is not in shambles because of an illness that causes him to act erratically or the treatment that robs him of creativity, of his ability to turn his “chaos into beauty.”
I go into solo shows with trepidation. With one person on stage, it’s a hit or miss with no real in-between, and there are no safety nets. It’s not an easy task. Yet, Roston, as Hathaway—so manic and articulate all at once in his stream-of-consciousness ramblings, that he often breaks to tell himself to breathe—knocks it out the park. Not just the acting, but also the singing, as he runs through Hathaway’s repertoire with passion, anchoring each song in a time or place and the experience that inspired it, especially his love for his wife on “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know.”
To say that Roston embodies Hathaway is an understatement. He is Hathaway. He sings his songs. Pounds out his arrangements on the piano. Conveys his joys—his daughters, wife, and friend Roberta—and his pain.
As he rages at his condition—the fact that everyone talks to themselves, but yet only he is considered diseased—he tears through his box of pills, dumping bottle after bottle onto the ground. This one causes impotence. Another constipation. And yet another causes his muscles to seize and contract.
“They,” he says calming, trying to regain his composure, “erase me.”
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Despite this—and a somewhat sad upbringing in St. Louis that seems to have primed him for a mental break—Hathaway is often funny and charming. Roston pulls you into his world effortlessly and happily through his music, which has the soul of gospel, R&B, and jazz. I try not to over-research shows ahead of time, preferring instead to be surprised by the story and acting. So, I was surprised post show to read that Roston has been performing Twisted Melodies for 10 years. He’s electric and present. The show feels as fresh as a brisk walk at dawn.
The lighting and projections—seen mostly through the huge picture window of the hotel—sets mood after mood, eventually becoming almost another character. The inner workings of a mind at war with itself and disconnected from body and reality. Colors—bright pink and blue—abound, turning dull and gray, like the empty fuzz of TV without signal, the further Hathaway slips away. It’s spine chilling at moments, especially coupled with sounds, like random pounding on the door and the swoosh of someone walking past, that surely are only in Hathaway’s mind.
Twisted Melodies is beautiful, heartbreaking, and powerful. Hathaway may have died at 33, but his story is a reminder that understanding mental illness is still with us. As is Hathaway’s music. More than he ever could have predicted.
Twisted Melodies . Written and performed by Kelvin Roston, Jr. Directed by Derrick Sanders. Artistic Team: Kelvin Roston, Jr., Music Director; Courtney O’Neill, Scenic Designer; Dede Ayite, Costume Designer; Alan C. Edwards, Lighting Designer; Mike Tutaj, Projection Designer; Christopher M. LaPorte, Sound Designer; Hana S. Sharif, Production Dramaturg; Wendell Etherly, Gavin Witt, and Deanie Vallone, Dramaturgs; Tiffany Fulson, Assistant Director; and Anthony O. Bullock, Assistant Stage Manager. Katrina Herrmann, Stage Manager. Presented by Baltimore Center Stage in association with Congo Square Theatre Company . Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.