A night at ‘The Colored Museum’ makes for a magical evening

  • By Kenya Vaughn
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Seating was beyond capacity.

Those who could not find a seat were forced to stand and look down from the balcony as the Black Rep revisited George C. Wolfe’s African-American theatre staple, “The Colored Museum,” at Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis last Monday.

By the start of the show, the balcony was also full.

In fact, there was barely a piece of wall to lean against anywhere within CAM that offered the slightest vantage point of the performance.

The original plan was to rotate the 11 skits about the black experience that comprise the play throughout the museum, but the size of the crowd required a shift in logistics.

The company of performers would have to stay put in the lecture area, but the show went on – and it was glorious.

The Black Rep presented the free staged reading of the play on June 20 as part of the 6th Annual Project 1VOICE/1PLAY/1DAY – an event presented in association with a variety of other theater companies, museums, and institutions throughout the U.S. and abroad as a fundraiser for programming and activities.

This showing wasn’t the norm for The Black Rep. Aside from the venue, the cast featured stage veterans paired with local celebrities – most of them popular media personalities.

Debra Bass of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Bonita Cornute of KTVI-TV, Carol Daniel of KMOX Radio, Art Holliday of KSDK-TV, Gary Gunter of Radio One St. Louis and The American’s own Wiley Price were among them.

Each performer seemed to relish their time in the spotlight. The veterans coached and directed the unlikely actors, and the result was something bucket lists are made of.

“The Photo Session” exhibit featured Bass, who is fashion editor for thePost, and Price, The American’s veteran photojournalist, pretending to be on the other side of the camera.

They posed and pony-walked across an imaginary runway, personifying Wolfe’s skit that brings Ebony Magazine print models to life.

Price elicited howling laughter as he strutted across the stage, relying on the years of what he’s seen while snapping photos from the end of the runway. Bass was as smug and pretentious as any stereotypical supermodel as she embodied a runway diva.

Even though 2016 marks the 30th anniversary of “The Colored Museum,” the themes resonated profoundly with the audience – and the performers.

Mama Carol on the couch

“The Colored Museum” was created nearly 10 years before Tyler Perry caught on with audiences as an urban stage producer/writer/director/star, but Daniel’s performance as the church-going mother who takes no mess from her adult wayward son seemed to be plucked from any given “Madea” production.

For “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play,” CAM echoed with laughter as Daniel delivered a powerful backhand to her son for “using the Lord’s name in vain.”

The skit pokes fun at the formulas of drama found in African-American film, television and urban theatre. It also featured Holliday as a classically-trained theatre announcer who presented on-site awards for their most outlandish performances.

Daniel’s spot-on portrayal of the stereotypical urban stage matriarch continued as she plopped her entire body across the couch – which is a standard of the set – and crawled across the floor in the name of “her baby” in order to secure her statue. This bit caused even her fellow cast members to erupt with laughter in the middle of the performance.

“Perhaps I shouldn’t quit my day job,” Holliday joked after being greeted with a high five following his performance.

He was actually quite good. They all were. 

Other crowd favorites included “Cooking with Aunt Ethel,” “The Gospel According to Miss Roj,” “Soldier with a Secret” and “Lala’s Opening.”

But the undisputed champion of laughter for the evening was “The Hair Piece,” featuring Cornute.

The exhibit features two wigs fighting for the attention of their owner – and demanding to be worn on her next date. CAM erupted when the wigs went after each other like catty “frenemies” to persuade Cornute’s character.

“I played one of the wigs in college,” Lula Gladden said with pride as she waited for the particular skit to be played. “It was so much fun.” 

 Black Rep closes its 39th season with Twisted Melodies, a moving exploration of the connection between genius and madness, expertly conveyed in an evocatively personal performance by actor Kelvin Roston, Jr, who also researched and wrote the script. The one man show with music delves into the mind and mental illness of singer songwriter Donnie Hathaway in an affecting, heartbreaking portrayal that's filled with songs, reverence and genuine anguish.

St. Louis native and Vashon High graduate Donnie Hathaway was an extremely talented, rising star in R&B music during the 70s whose career was cut short by his untimely death. A prodigious pianist, Hathaway grew up under his grandmother's roof and tutelage. A strict, Bible-quoting woman with a commanding will, she taught him to play piano and sing gospel. Her insistence that he constantly practice piano seems both an acknowledgement of talent and of her grandson's mental illness. You see, Hathaway was also diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic. His illness eventually consumed him.

As with many artists, Hathaway found that the medicine he took stifled his creativity and ability to compose music even more than it helped control his symptoms. Though his grandmother did her best to prepare him by providing a grounding point and focus in music, it was not enough to sufficiently shield him, and as he matured, his episodes became increasingly intense and disruptive.

Twisted Melodies takes place in a single day, opening at a studio recording session then quickly moving to Hathaway's small, dingy room in a boarding hotel. The place seems a bit cramped and closed up, perhaps mirroring Hathaway's attempts to keep schizophrenic episodes at bay through rigid order and control. In the course of an evening, we watch and listen as Hathaway tells us of his life and love in between episodes filled with genuine terror and confusion. He frequently speaks to someone in the room that we cannot see, and he seems to see the audience, viewing us as an ensemble of guardian angels sent to help.

An inventive bit of writing, this recognition accentuates Hathaway's loosening grip on reality and is enhanced by the ominous, sometimes angry sound design created by Rick Sims. Having helped developTwisted Melodies as part of The Black Reps programs to nurture and support artists and original work, Ron Himes directs with certainty and a deep understanding of the story. Roston's performance is gripping -- at times the audience is moved to sing along, at other times they are left to gasp, astonished at Hathaway's complete breakdown and how easily the walls of reality crumble.

The story occasionally gets lost in the performance, and it's not always easy to understand Roston's character transitions. Some work to clarify the exposition would add a strong through line to the show, helping to increase tension and drive to the tragic denouement. Additionally, I found it incredibly disconcerting that the now-deceased character Hathaway returns to the stage for an encore song after the story's end. Roston fully commits to his character and performance, however, and largely succeeds in taking the audience inside the artist's troubled mind. He deftly embodies both the genius and madness, using his voice, slight ticks, and changes in posture to transition as his mind grapples with lucidity. At times inspired, at times violently paranoid, and sometimes frightening, we see the ugly and overwhelming power mental illness can hold over a person.

Thankfully, there are moments of genuine beauty between the madness as we get stirring, passionate versions of Hathaway's most popular hits, as well as some gospel and a touch of Roberta Flack. Roston delivers strong renditions and has his curation of music suits the theme and emotional tenor of the show. His voice is evocative and reminiscent of Hathaway, and he fills the theater with emotion and presence.

Talent brought Hathaway a bit of fame and fortune, but it was not enough to overcome his mental illness. His story is artfully and respectfully detailed by The Black Rep in Twisted Melodies, running through May 1 in Washington University's Edison Theater.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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