Mosaic Theater’s stellar production of “Twisted Melodies” is onstage through July 21. It emotionally depicts the genius and troubled life of famed singer Donny Hathaway who died on January 13, 1979.
A one-man show written by and starring Kelvin Roston Jr., the play is a gripping window into the last 24 hours of Hathaway’s life. It shows the demons that both haunted and inspired the Grammy-Award winning singer, composer and arranger. Only 33, Hathaway’s body was found outside the Essex House Hotel in New York, below his 15th-floor hotel room window. Diagnosed with depression and paranoid schizophrenia, Hathaway’s death was ruled a suicide.
A gifted musician raised by his grandmother, a professional gospel singer, in a public housing project in St. Louis, Hathaway was singing gospel music in local churches at age 3. By the mid 70’s he was producing and arranging music for such giants as Aretha Franklin and The Staples Singers.
His duets with singer Roberta Flack, who he had spent the day with recording new music just hours before his death, would sell over 1 million records. When the play opens, Hathaway is holed up in his hotel room writing music when he begins hearing voices on his tape recorder and a furious pounding on the door. Petrified that someone is trying to take over his mind and his song-writing ability, he talks to himself trying to get past the paralyzing fear that grips him. Later, when a phone rings, he again hears voices and tears the phone apart, huddling on his hotel room floor as the world seems to close in around him.
In between, Roston gives glimpses into Hathaway’s earlier life. The play notes that his father seemingly suffered from mental illness after serving as a soldier in World War II. The audience also learns about Hathaway’s amazing musical abilities that displayed not only an extraordinary voice but also an incredible ability to play the piano.
Additionally, Hathaway had the rare ability to hear a piece of music as a completely finished piece of work in his head. His compositions, influenced by gospel, soul, Latin jazz and other genres, would have a major impact on many of today’s successful artists, including R&B singer Alicia Keyes and guitarist George Benson.
The strength of the play is in Royston’s ability to almost channel Hathaway as he performs some of the artists’ songs such as “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” “The Ghetto,” “Song for You” and “Giving Up.”
Roston skillfully plays the electric keyboard and is backed by other instruments on recorded tracks. He does a fine job of evoking the audience’s empathy as we see the agonizing depths of mental illness and its impact on one man’s artistic brilliance.
One of the most gut-wrenching moments of the play is when Roston reels off a list of drugs that Hathaway has been prescribed. While they make him calmer, they also have numerous side effects that turn him into a mere shadow of himself.
As Roston lays on the floor, his body taut and twisted after taking a fistful of drugs. The audience watches helplessly as Hathaway struggles to stay sane, saying that he feels himself disappearing.
In “Twisted Melodies,” director Derrick Sanders has wisely allowed Roston to have free rein to show the realities of psychological distress. Roston also is aided by a talented artistic team that uses sound, visuals and lighting creatively to portray a man’s harrowing journey into the fourth dimension of the mind.
With so many celebrity suicides in today’s news, the play calls for a deeper understanding of the cause of mental illness and its devastating effects on individuals and their families. Hopefully, those seeing this powerful and deeply moving production will leave the theater more compassionate and less judgmental of those struggling with mental disorders.