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Center Stage play probes troubled mind of Donny Hathaway

Center Stage play probes troubled mind of Donny Hathaway
Kelvin Roston Jr. in "Twisted Melodies" at Center Stage. (Richard Anderson)

By the age of 25, he had cut his first solo album. A couple years later, he had a major hit and a Grammy for his duet with Roberta Flack, "Where Is the Love?"

But on Jan. 13, 1979, Donny Hathaway died on a New York City sidewalk after falling 15 stories from his hotel room. He was 33.

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The singer's short, troubled life and apparent suicide will be explored in "Twisted Melodies," a one-man play written and performed by Kelvin Roston Jr. that gets its Baltimore premiere at Center Stage this weekend.

"I didn't know too much about him before I started working on this," says the St. Louis-born, Chicago-based Roston, 38. "I knew 'This Christmas' and [Hathaway's cover of Leon Russell's] 'A Song for You,' and I knew he sang the theme for the TV show 'Maude.'"

A decade ago, Roston had occasion to learn much more after being asked to write a short, one-person show for Black Rep, a professional African-American theater company in St. Louis. He first tried to squeeze Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and Hathaway into the piece, but Roston was advised to pick just one.

He chose Hathaway, partly because of the problem that dogged the singer — mental illness.

"It was something I was familiar with. There was mental illness in my family," Roston says. "Donny Hathaway had schizophrenia and major league depression."

Over the years, Roston reworked the play — retitled "Twisted Melodies" — and performed the premiere in 2015 with Chicago's Congo Square Theatre Company, where he is an artistic associate.

"The African-American community is particularly hush-mouthed about mental illness," Roston says. "We tend to diminish it and make it a weakness, something that can be prayed away. Prayer can do a lot of things, but not that. I wanted to open up the discussion about mental illness."

Hathaway's ailments steadily ate away at him.

"There was a time when he dropped from the scene for several years and was in the hospital a lot," Roston says. "He separated from his wife. And his friendship with Roberta Flack waned."

Although Hathaway periodically improved, enough to smooth things over with Flack and make another duet ("The Closer I Get to You," an R&B chart-topper in 1978), the troubles in his head returned.

"He was in a recording studio earlier on the day he died, but he started screaming that the machines were stealing his brain," Roston says.

To get a deeper idea of what Hathaway was going through, Roston consulted a clinical psychiatrist in Chicago and studied the cases of her clients.

"My play is fiction, but some of what's going on onstage is an amalgam of those people's stories," Roston says. "I want us to become more empathetic with people with mental illness."

Although Hathaway's descent is covered in "Twisted Melodies," the play also takes note of his musical gifts.

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"He had this uncanny way of making you feel exactly what he sang about," Roston says. "Someone described him as being able 'to vocally cry.' You could tell he came from church [music], in the way he ad-libbed and the call and response."

Roston, too, has roots in church music; his mother's father was the pastor at the church he attended as a child. That grandfather also encouraged him to take piano lessons so Roston could become one of the church musicians.

"Twisted Melodies" gives Roston a chance to use his musical skills, while also presenting him the challenge of living up to people's memories of Hathaway.

"I do my very best to come as close as I can to him," Roston says. "I play the piano, and I feel I play pretty well. I sing, and I feel I sing pretty well. But nothing in comparison to Donny Hathaway. God broke the mold when he made him."

If you go

"Twisted Melodies" opens Friday and runs through April 16 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $22 to $64. Call 410-332-0033, or go to centerstage.org.

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