“You don’t understand my schizophrenia when you see it in me. But in my music, you accept it.”
That line cuts to the core of “Twisted Melodies,” a play about the life, genius and inner turmoil of ’70s soul singer Donny Hathaway.
Written and performed by Kelvin Roston Jr. and directed by Derrick Sanders, the one-man production has returned for a special limited run in Baltimore Center Stage’s Pearlstone Theater through May 19. The comeback was inevitable, thanks the acclaim the show enjoyed during its initial run in spring 2017.
“We’ve worked very passionately to bring “Twisted Melodies” back to Baltimore,” Michael Ross, Baltimore Center Stage Executive Director, says. “In its first run here, it was not just a box office hit, but one of our most impactful and talked about shows, because it really touched people both musically and emotionally.”
The play takes place over one night in a New York City hotel room, but Roston as Hathaway manages to transport the audience from Chicago to St. Louis to Washington D.C. as he recounts his origins and career. Strolling around the small set, Hathaway monologues about his grandmother who raised him and fostered his love of gospel music; his time at Howard University where he met his wife Eulalah; and his success as a musician, including a celebrated collaboration with singer Roberta Flack that brought about classics like “The Closer I Get to You” and “Where is the Love?” The tale is punctuated by musical performances as Hathaway sits at a piano in the room, belting out the tunes that made him an icon.
But there’s a dark element to “Twisted Melodies” — Hathaway’s paranoid schizophrenia.
His hallucinations are made tangible by the play’s many clever effects, as eerie voices whisper from the hotel phone and radio, aggressive knocks come periodically at the door and shadows of strange men travel along the walls. By the end of the play, Hathaway speaks candidly about his complicated relationship with his illness, lamenting the toll it’s taken on his loved ones while also scorning the medications that deprive him of his creativity and identity.
After all, Hathaway says, his schizophrenia and music are intertwined — that’s what makes the melodies twisted.
It’s no coincidence that “Twisted Melodies” made its return during May, which is Mental Health Awareness month.
“I wrote this show to showcase some of the genius of Donny Hathaway, but also to shed light on a subject that we have held as taboo: mental illness,” Roston says. “I want those suffering to know they’re not alone.”
Ironically, it’s Hathaway that, despite his role as the play’s sole character, is never once alone. Early in the show, he recognizes and acknowledges the audience members, startled at first but happy to have someone to listen to his stories and songs. He even calls them his “angels” and invites them to join in a call-and-response.
It’s a fun homage to the interactive nature of Hathaway’s live shows, during which he’d famously invite the crowd to sing with him. But it takes a turn for the disturbing when Hathaway eventually accuses the audience of colluding with the mysterious forces who want to “steal his music” and you realize that, as a viewer, you were also an element of his delusions.
All of this and more make “Twisted Melodies” a truly unique and captivating experience. It’s no wonder the show is set to visit two more cities during the remainder of its run: first at New York City’s historic Apollo Theater and then Washington D.C.’s Mosaic Theatre Company.
So before it leaves town, immerse yourself in the sights, sounds and sorrow of “Twisted Melodies” — its reputation may soon match that of the legend it depicts.