Mosaic Theater Company is making its presence deeply felt in its fourth season, which opened with the moving historically-rooted play “Marie and Rosetta,” about the little-known musician and mother of rock ‘n’ roll, Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
The company now closes its fourth season with yet another history-based play, “Twisted Melodies,” about the life of the legendary musician Donny Hathaway. But rather than being a happy stroll down memory lane, it tells the imagined story of the last hours of Hathaway’s life, which ended tragically in 1979 when the singer plunged to his death from a hotel room window.
This 90-minute, one-man show relies solely on the talents of Kelvin Roston Jr., who conceived of the production a decade-and-a-half ago, when the actor/musician wrote, directed and served as the musical director for the story of Hathaway’s legendary career and untimely demise for the Congo Square Theater in Chicago.
This current tour, which also went to the Apollo Theater in New York, graces the DMV area with an extended run ending July 21, enhanced with post-show discussions to help to understand the powerful, yet disturbing, glance into Hathaway’s life which spiraled down in a haze of mental illness diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia.
The joy and genius of Hathaway is clearly exemplified through the talents of Roston, who embodies the singer/musician in an otherworldly way that bring the rawness of Hathaway’s anguish into clear view, while also illustrating the sacred music foundation on which he created songs which defy time like “The Closer I Get to You,” “A Song For You,” “The Ghetto,” and the classic holiday song, “This Christmas.”
“Twisted Melodies” was fashioned and re-fitted from the original production, entitled “Psychology of a Genius.” In the years between, Roston has owned the role and creates the impression that we are really in the presence of Hathaway as he confronts, and ultimately loses, to his demons and destruction resulting from his illness that escalated towards the last years of his life. The jury is still out as to whether Hathaway took his own life, or died accidentally from plummeting to his death as he tried to stage a comeback.
Hathaway is a familiar name in this region, as he is associated closely with Howard University, where he enrolled in 1964 and attended the influential university where he met and joined forces with another musical legend, Roberta Flack. He also met his wife, and the mother of two of his three children. One of whom went on to inherit her father’s musicality, Lalah Hathaway, is a popular and successful musician today.
Roston’s musical gifts, solid and eerily similar vocals, and dynamic storytelling make “Twisted Melodies,” not only a joy to experience, but serves as a window into the torment of mental illness, underscoring the reasons that this critical issue needs to be addressed in the Black community.
During one of the lively and informative post-show discussions, the topic was addressed through a panel featuring experts from the spiritual, psychological and ethnomusicological fields, each weighing in on the multifaceted nuances of Hathaway’s life and music.
Under the title “Donny Hathaway: The Sacred and the Secular,” the panel called on the knowledge of Maurice Jackson, Associate Professor of History and African-American Studies and Affiliated Professor of Performing Arts at Georgetown University; Maya Cunningham, ethnomusicologist and cultural activist; Rev. Delonte J. Gholston Senior Pastor at Peace Fellowship Church; and Samuel Gordon, clinical psychologist at MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital, moderated by NJ Mitchell who serves as Artistic Director of Mt. Gilead Performing Arts Ministry and board member of Mosaic Theater Company.
The panelists weighed in on the importance of faith in Hathaway’s life, which was an ongoing theme in the play as he referenced his grandmother who raised him in St. Louis, and launched an early career as a young Gospel singer. Hathaway frequently called on the strength of his grandmother’s faith to face his challenges.
“There has always been this deep, indescribable, ineffable pain that one can hear in Donny Hathaway’s music,” Gholston said, adding that he is a musician as well and had previously suffered from depression. “I have always connected to this deep longing in his music; in his groans, in his chord progressions and the minor chords he used. You can always feel that tension in this music. What I loved in this production was (Kelvin’s) ability to embody that. He took us there!”
But the pervasive issue in discussion was the undiagnosed, misdiagnosed and stigmatization of mental illness in the African American community, and how it is leading to destruction through denial.
Before the play closes next Sunday, July 21, there will be additional post-show discussions; “Duets and Dialogues: Musical Partnerships,” on July 18 at the 8 p.m. show; “More Than Self-Care: Balancing Health and a Musical Career,” on July 20 at the 3 p.m. matinee and “Voices from Within and Without: the Creativity and Loneliness of Donny Hathaway,” after the 3 p.m. show on the closing date, July 21.
“Twisted Melodies,” a reference to the change in the music of Donny Hathaway during his last years, plays at the Mosaic Theater Company, housed at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington, D.C. Visit www.mosaictheater.org, or call 202-399-7993 for more information.