BWW Review: Harrowing TWISTED MELODIES at The Black Rep  

By Chris Gibson

Donny Hathaway is the very definition of "tortured genius", a singer/songwriter with velvety pipes, and melodies that were both memorable and timeless. Just listen to the gritty truths he expresses on his breakthrough tune, "The Ghetto (pt. 1)", or his collaborations with Roberta Flack, particularly "The Closer I Get to You" or "Where is the Love?", and try and not fall right into the mood that each song creates. The tragedy of the whole thing is that Hathaway suffered from schizophrenia, often hearing voices in his head that ultimately led to his terribly untimely demise. This is by no means your typical revue or jukebox musical, but an internal exploration of the demons that haunted Hathaway, and from which he ultimately could not escape.

While some of his lighter and happier times are explored by creator/performer extraordinaire Kelvin Rolston, Jr., the bulk of this piece titled TWISTED MELODIES, is tied into his depiction of the way the thoughts in his head affected his life and work. It's harrowing at times, delving deeply into the troubled soul of a man capable of so much. But, it's honest as well, and at brief moments, absolutely joyful. And, Rolston more than holds his own vocally, and on keyboard. It's truly schizophrenic in its own way, and it deserves your time and attention. Catch The Black Rep's outstanding and compelling ride through musical madness at the Edison Theater through May 1, 2016.


The Black Rep's Twisted Melodies Is a Worthy Tribute to Donny Hathaway 

  A one-man show set inside a hotel room on the last day of the protagonist's life could be grimly claustrophobic, but Kelvin Roston, Jr.'s Twisted Melodies is instead expansive and life-affirming. It owes its warmth in no small part to Roston's moving performance as soul singer Donny Hathaway, a gifted musician plagued by mental illness. That performance is enhanced by several fantastic renditions of Hathaway's biggest hits with Roston accompanying himself on keyboards. Everything that made Donny Hathaway an amazing live performer — the sense of humor, the timbre of his voice, the way his hands danced across the keys, his ability to emotionally connect with a crowd — is present when Roston plays and sings.


But Roston's play, which closes the Black Rep's current season, is more than a powerful tribute to Hathaway. Twisted Melodies is a deep dive into Hathaway's paranoid schizophrenia and how it altered the direction of his life and art. It honestly confronts the effects of mental illness with intelligence and sensitivity without portraying Hathaway's suicide as the romantic action of a tortured artist. Hathaway may have leaped to his death from a hotel window to escape the auditory and visual hallucinations that plagued him, but Roston argues that he ultimately beat his illness — and not by dying, but by living on through his music.

Director Ron Himes and projection designer Mark Wilson have devised a way for those hallucinations to torment the audience as well. While Donny tells us about his childhood in St. Louis and the grandmother who forced him to play piano all day to keep him out of trouble, or discusses seeing his wife Eulaulah for the first time, an angry buzzing sound growls, and the wallpaper projected on the back wall goes all glitchy and drowns him out. A disembodied voice angrily calls his name and Donny hides behind the chair, as far away from his keyboard as he can be in the small room — and closer to the fateful window.

Donny fights his way out of these fits by singing to himself and focusing on his own voice. Music is his comfort, but it too becomes infected by his disease. Strange chords and jarring noises mar his songs when he doesn't take his medication, but the medication of the '70s comes with a host of side effects that preclude him from singing or playing. They contort his hands and force his tongue to loll out of his mouth, which locks him in his own personal hell. It's only at his keyboard that he can be himself.

So Donny chose to be unmedicated for the music, which cost him his wife and family. The decision is as damaging to him emotionally as his Thorazine. "Eulaulah looked at me like I mean something —" he starts one anecdote but stops himself with a grimace before continuing, "— like I meant something."

This is the moment you first suspect he's planned the end. He's lost the woman who inspired him to cover "A Song For You," and now the song is slipping out of his grasp as well. "All the genius didn't come from pretty — some of it came from ugly," he tells us softly. He walks over to his keyboard, bends at the waist to kiss it one last time and takes his place at the window. He leaps into darkness and silence, free at last of the voices.

But Roston gives Hathaway a proper send-off in the encore. He walks back onstage and launches into another song, giving him his immortality. As long as people drop the needle on "Someday We'll All Be Free," "The Ghetto" or "We're Still Friends," the real Donny Hathaway — the soul singer, the father and husband, the man — still exists.

Legendary St. Louis attorney and civil rights icon Frankie Muse Freeman is fulfilling a dream by lending her name to a fundraising initiative for the long-term survival of another local icon, The Black Rep.


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;