By Alex Miller
The first thing you notice about the world‑famous Apollo Theater is the palatial neo‑Classical design of the proscenium facing the lower level of seating – the upper rows are closed.
Donny Hathaway, the 1970s soul singer and composer, played by Kelvin Roston, Jr., enters his room at the Essex Hotel, where everything, from the large picture window that reveals the NYC skyline to the clean white door with gold trim, is perfect. Only the man is flawed. Wearing a Ventair hat, plaid jacket, plaid bellbottoms, and oxblood shoes, he is very much a man of his era. His blue sweater is adorned with a gold necklace (the very fitting ensemble was designed by Dede Ayite).
Donny, looking across the room both ways as if crossing a street, sits down and proceeds with an awesome rendition of his classic “Song for You,” his fingers running across a black keyboard. Mr. Roston, Jr.’s silky, smooth voice is quite reminiscent of the late R&B legend, and with those signature Hathaway sideburns, one can immediately see the resemblance.
The two men are connected by kismet: Hathaway (born Donny Edward Pitts) was conceived in Chicago but reared in St. Louis – meanwhile Mr. Roston, Jr. was born in St. Louis and now lives in Chicago.
Donny’s audio recorder sits atop the piano. He tries recording, but the device is broken. It fails to record the notes he’s desperately trying to express.
“This is my personal recorder,” he says, exasperated. “This is my private space.” He blinks rapidly, looking at this now‑foreign object.
“They have been in here. They planted something in here,” he tells us, his eyes shifting, searching, probing the room with the intensity of a madman.
The phone rings, startling several members of the audience almost as much as it& surprises Donny himself. He slinks over to it after about the seventh ring. The voice on the other end is a woman’s ghostly, breathy whisper. He rips the phone out of the wall.
Nervously muttering to himself, Donny digs through a gold bag of medications. He picks one, but then decides against it, opting for the comfort of a cigarette. Taking off his jacket, he sits down and laughs. Then he prays: “God…I feel like I’m losing…control.” The pain in his eyes, as he looks up to the heavens in search of a friend he’s not sure is still there, is enough to break one’s heart.
Drifting off into the nothing and nowhere, he mentions feeling the music twist into melodies. He worries that he’s a disappointment to his frequent collaborator Roberta Flack and his band.
His attention snaps back to his room, and he finishes the rest of “Song for You,” after which the audience erupts into applause. Donny jumps up, clearly disturbed. He points at us: “Who…what are you? Are you with them?” As the crowd laughs, he calms a bit and welcomes us into his amazing story.
His grandmother raised him, after his veteran father “lost his song.” “Only thing I wanna hear on that piano is scales,” she told him. She made him play the piano until his fingers hurt and didn’t suffer fools gladly. She was also gladly willing to slap him to his senses the one time he questioned her authority. “She slapped the Devil out of me with her backhand, God into me with her front‑hand.” She was not one to suffer a secular life, either. Gospel remained a part of him for the rest of his life, thanks to her.
As the performance delves into the life of this tortured genius, his illness soon becomes a major character. Before the play ends, it will become the main character.
Mental illness is one of the many subjects this production tackles so well. Thanks to the combined talents of projection designer Mike Tutaj, scenic designer Courtney O’Neill, and sound designer Christopher M. Laporte, what you see is a living, breathing, tangible theater production. The haunting silhouettes that follow Donny throughout the musical; the staticky, Jackson Pollock‑esque images of distortion across the walls and window as he loses control; the MRI scans that engulf the room in red, orange, and purple. The echoes and tortured squeals of skipped records, as Donny’s psychotic breaks get worse and worse, produce an effect that demands attention.
It’s difficult not to sing along whenever Mr. Roston, Jr.’s Donny Hathaway offers sonic gems like “For All We Know” and “Someday We’ll All Be Free.” At one point, Donny divides us into groups to sing “Ghetto”: the women sing, “Talkin’ bout the ghetto,” to which the men reply, “The ghetto.”
Throughout the show, voices often interrupt Donny’s narrative. His wife, kids, and collaborators drift away because he refuses to take his meds. There’s a semi‑hilarious, semi‑upsetting scene in which Donny lists the reasons why he’s not taking medication, in the voice of a TV drug commercial spokesman. Haloperidol, Risperidone, and Thorazine counter his schizophrenia symptoms with side effects that are as bad or worse: erectile dysfunction, constipation, drowsiness and insomnia, and even lockjaw, severe muscle spasms, and debilitating cramps. In the background, a dreamy, watery, rippling effect alters the shapes of the chemical formulas of each drug.
“Rifts can’t fly in confined spaces!” he informs us, explaining why he stopped taking the “pills for meals” offered by the psych ward where he stayed.
After about an hour and twenty minutes of sporadic pounding on the door, voices, radios speaking to him, and haunting images of silhouetted men coming in and out of his life, the 33‑year‑old Donny Hathaway finally accepts his fate. The hotel room splits into three parts, the walls fall, and he screams in pain and mental anguish. Calm and cool once again, he dons his jacket, cap, and jumps out the window. The NYC skyline, alive with blues and reds, follows him out the window, and a forward‑rotating wall allows us to see from his vantage point as he falls. Ultimately, the screen goes white, as he exits this stage to proceed to the next.
With “Twisted Melodies,” director Derrick Sanders has proven to be the kind of visionary even visionaries talk about. To capture so viscerally the war zone that is schizophrenia is something of a miracle. And it just goes to show how important it is to help our friends in need. We could all be a little more vigilant when warning signs arise. After that, fate will be the driver.
Hathaway’s myriad talents are often overlooked; he was a gospel singer from the age of three, a pianist so gifted he earned a full ride to Howard University, and a writer, composer, and arranger. Many people only think of “This Christmas” and his untimely death. But this musical is a masterpiece of sound and display – and Mr. Roston, Jr. is nothing short of brilliant. I can say without a doubt or hesitation that this is one of the top five plays I’ve ever reviewed, possibly even one of the two. You’ll never see anything like it.
Written and Performed by Kelvin Roston, Jr.
Directed by Derrick Sanders
May 30 – June 2, 2019
Photo: courtesy of the production
The Apollo Theater
253 W. 127th Street
New York, NY 10027
ALEX MILLER, a Chicago native, has been a professional writer and editor for 6 years. He joined the Navy in 2004, and served for four years in such places as Haiti, Iraq, and Somalia. He has a degree in Public Engagement from The New School, and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Forbes, The New York Daily News, and QZ, among others. He lives in Harlem.