Stigma of mental illness haunts new play at Black Rep

 


 

1970, Donny Hathaway released his first single, “The Ghetto.” Rolling Stone hailed him as “a major new force in soul music.” At the dawn of the decade, the performer and songwriter from St. Louis seemed to be at the dawn of his own brilliant career.

 

But Hathaway also had paranoid schizophrenia. In 1979, when he fell to his death in New York, it was ruled a suicide. He was 33 years old.

His illness, as much as his music, drew actor Kelvin Roston Jr. to Hathaway’s story. “We tend not to talk about mental illness, especially in our community. There’s a stigma,” says Roston, author of and sole performer in “Twisted Melodies.” It opens this week at the Black Rep. “It would have been easier to talk about if he’d had cancer. But we have to talk about this.”

When “Twisted Melodies” debuted at Chicago’s Congo Square Theatre last year, Roston had no idea how audiences would react. “The whole point was to open up a conversation about mental illness,” he explains. “And we really did! It still boggles my mind.”

“Twisted Melodies” turned out to be so popular that the whole production was revived. Most performances included post-show discussions coordinated with the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Now, the Chicago chapter of NAMI is about to give Roston its Light in the Darkness award, honoring him for the play and his efforts to break the silence.

The St. Louis production will also include talk-backs; the Black Rep is partnering with NAMI and other agencies for this production. No doubt there will be more discussions down the road, when “Twisted Melodies” opens in Baltimore.

Roston, who researched Hathaway extensively for the play, thinks he was probably ill even as a student at Vashon High, when he took multiple showers a day and wore his coat all the time. Still, he did so well in school that he won a scholarship to Howard, where he met both his wife, Eulaulah, and his frequent partner in music, Roberta Flack. (Among their songs: “The Closer I Get to You” and “Where Is the Love?”)

But as time went on, Hathaway’s health deteriorated. Sometimes he watched static on TV (he saw patterns in it) or listened to blank tapes. Maybe he thought he heard something, or maybe he just liked the silence.

Roston, who dismisses the argument that Hathaway was pushed, doesn’t even think the manner of Hathaway’s death was particularly shocking.

“He was often seen hanging out of a window, screaming and yelling,” says the actor, who moved from St. Louis to Chicago about nine years ago. “When he was unmedicated, he was unbearable to be around. But when he took medicine — medicine in the 1970s, not today — the side effects were unbearable for him.

“I don’t know if he jumped on purpose or not. But I believe he wanted a way to quiet everything inside.”

 
 
 
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To some extent, Hathaway was cut off from friends and family by then, isolated and stigmatized by mental illness. That spoke to Roston, who has been aware of that stigma since his childhood in Wellston. His mother was diagnosed with a different mental illness, bipolar disorder.

Today Roston is a professional actor who works all the time (he’s currently booked a year out, rare in the theater world). In June, he and his fiancee, actress Alexis J. Rogers, will celebrate their wedding (a “theater wedding,” he says, at Chicago’s Black Ensemble Theater). He might have chosen to put troubling family issues behind him, but Hathaway’s story has been on Roston’s mind a long time — almost as long as he’s loved performing.

Roston’s grandfather — the late Pastor Roosevelt Bibbs, a man Roston calls “the backbone of our family” — turned Roston and his younger brother and sister into a singing trio. They performed at church events too small for the whole choir. There were plays in church, too, particularly exciting because, as an actor, Roston could sit in the “important” chair usually reserved for his grandfather.

Early start

Going straight through Catholic schools, he got involved in theater at Cardinal Ritter College Prep; soon, he drew his classmate and cousin Ronald Conner into the theater program, too. In the years since, both have become stalwarts of the Black Rep, often playing leading roles. There was a gap, though. After college, Roston took a job in airline reservations. But when Conner told him he belonged with him, at the Black Rep, Roston listened. “I quit my job to be a production assistant there,” he says. “I thought, this might be the only time that window opens, the window to what I really love — the arts.”

He first thought about a play based on Hathaway when the Black Rep’s founder and producing director, Ron Himes, urged all the young interns and staffers to create one-person shows. Roston thought of Hathaway immediately, but the idea slowly simmered for years.

At Congo, he talked it over with the artistic director, Sam Roberson, emphasizing his concern about stigma. “He told me that was the point,” says Roston, who began revising and rewriting the play for its Chicago debut.

A one-person show presents a special kind of challenge, of course. There’s no one around to help if you run into trouble; the show’s energy depends on you. Roston thinks he may continue to write for the stage, as well as to act.

“But if I write another one-man show,” he says, “it will be for somebody else.”


What “Twisted Melodies” • When Previews Wednesday and Thursday at 7 p.m.; opening Friday at 8 p.m. and running through May 1 • Where Washington University’s Edison Theatre, 6445 Forsyth Boulevard • How much $20-$30 • More info 314-534-3807; theblackrep.org