A foreboding, wide-open hotel window overlooking the Manhattan night skyline beckons you to enter the tender interior space of ’70s soul singer, composer and recording artist, Donny Hathaway. Twisted Melodies closes out Mosaic Theater’s 4th season with an emotionally intense tribute to a man whose demons ultimately consume him even as his inner struggles inspire us toward empathy and a greater sense of the dignity, the power, and the passion that were the catalysts for his musical genius.
Kelvin Roston Jr., who wrote Twisted Melodies and grew up in St. Louis just like Donny Hathaway, gives a breathtaking solo performance for which words are really insufficient to describe its emotional impact. He inhabits Donny Hathaway’s very soul as if channeling the essence of this gifted but tragic artist. Roston has been performing this role for the past eight years as if Donny Hathaway himself had an invisible hand in keeping his incredible music alive along with his hopes for a better understanding of mental illness.
The real takeaway from this deeply moving show, directed by Derrick Sanders and under Kelvin Roston Jr.’s musical direction, is more than one might ordinarily expect to see in a one-man play with music about a soul singer from the bygone ’70s. Twisted Melodies definitely entertains with great songs and Roston’s sensational singing, but the deeper impact of Twisted Melodies comes from the unexpected lucidity it shines on mental illness and the social need for understanding and compassion.
Kelvin Roston Jr. makes a direct and impelling connection with the audience who becomes unsuspecting co-conspirators, better angels, and muses in Donny Hathaway’s desperate imaginings. We support him through the turmoil and challenges of a brilliant mind tortured by depression and paranoid schizophrenia.
Donny Hathaway laments the mind-numbing medications everyone wants him to take because they rob him of his creativity. He hears voices and sees visions of predators and pills that fill his head with fearful thoughts that threaten to rob him of his music. Twisted Melodies explores the choices made when the isolation of depression is out of control.
Roston’s physical resemblance to Donny Hathaway is almost scary and makes reincarnation seem like a mystical possibility. Costumes by Dede Ayite capture Black men’s fashions from the ’70s with Roston’s checkered, high-water pants suit topped off with a baby blue turtleneck, gold chain around the neck and a cool Kangol cap.
Courtney O’Neill’s set design of an Essex Hotel room sets the scene where Donny descends into paranoia and where “The Machine” is trying to infiltrate his mind and steal his songs– and thus his very life. It’s the simple setting for Alan C. Edwards’ lighting, which vividly colors, spotlights and sparks fire in every emotion Hathaway is experiencing. It’s where Mike Tutaj’s compelling visual projections of dark, looming figures and jagged graphics mimic the fraying edges of a mind under siege. Christopher M. LaPorte creates sounds that go bump in the night to create the cauldron where Hathaway descends into a schizophrenic breakdown before our very eyes.
The artistic team for Twisted Melodies uses sight and sound so creatively that we become part of Donny Hathaway’s inner landscape, which defies three-dimensional limitations as it enters the fourth dimension of the mind in a way seldom seen on stage.
Howard University alums and other rousing fans were in the house and made a joyful noise in call-and-response to Roston’s frequent mention of Donny Hathaway’s connection to his Washingtonian days at Howard University where he received a full scholarship for the musical talent that surfaced when he was a three-year-old piano prodigy.
Raised by a tough-loving grandmother who nurtured his talent, Donny Hathaway’s musical roots were in Gospel, and Roston sang “Put Your Hand in the Hand” and “Someday We’ll All Be Free” with the conviction of a Baptist preacher.
Roston croons some of the duets that Hathaway memorialized with the great Roberta Flack, a fellow Howardite, and portrays Donny as a sweet charmer who loved the ladies but settled for only one, Eulalah, whom he met at Howard and married with “She Is My Lady” and “You Are My Heaven.” But Donny Hathaway never forgot his roots and his first hit single, “The Ghetto” kept it real.
This week marks the first anniversary of the death of CNN’s traveling chef, Anthony Bourdain. His passing shocked us all and put the effects of living with depression in plain view for all to see. Twisted Melodies explores the depths of mental illness from the inside out and not just as a concerned onlooker. It tells the story of music and mania in first person, up close and personal.
Through Kelvin Roston Jr.’s artistic brilliance and his obvious commitment to telling Donny Hathaway’s life story, we experience Hathaway’s gigantic talent and creativity but also the dark night of his soul right up until the very last moment of this startling production.
An open window in a hotel room becomes symbolism for opening the mind to ending the stigma of mental illness. At a time in our history when human empathy is being twisted in the direction of apathy, Twisted Melodies touches the core of compassion and sings its own song. Don’t miss this one.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Twisted Melodies, presented by The Baltimore Center Stage and Congo Square Theatre Company in association with The Apollo Theater and Mosaic Theater Company of DC, plays through July 21, 2019, at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.