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Even if you don’t know Donny Hathaway’s name, you certainly know his legacy; artists from Justin Timberlake to the late Amy Winehouse have cited his music as an influence, and his holiday track, “This Christmas,” is now hailed as a modern masterpiece.
For much of his career, Hathaway was consumed with fear and paranoia. He believed that everyone from white people to a nebulous someone were out to get him — trying to invade his brain to steal his music. Even after a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia and attempts at treatment, Hathaway was continuously caught between his art and his illness. In January 1979, he leapt from his 15th-floor hotel room in New York City and died at age 33.
Forty years after his passing, the one-man show “Twisted Melodies” depicts Hathaway’s final night on Earth. It celebrates the man and his music in equal measure with mourning, and brings the audience into Hathaway’s brilliant and frightened mind.
We meet the playwright and actor behind “Twisted Melodies” and talk about the life of Donny Hathaway.
Produced by Maura Currie
- Kelvin Roston, Jr. Playwright and Actor, "Twisted Melodies"; @KelvinRoston
Listen To Our Essential Donny Hathaway
Donny Hathaway’s music inspired countless modern acts, and his own work is timeless. Listen to some of our favorite tracks:
KOJO NNAMDIThat's Donny Hathaway's "The Ghetto." If the name doesn't ring any bells, the man's legacy is almost certainly familiar to you. Musicians from Alicia Keys to Justin Timberlake and the late Amy Winehouse have all cited him as an inspiration. And you've likely heard his music. Donny Hathaway seems to have been a classic tortured artist, a Grammy-winning musician who took his own life at the age of 33 after struggling for years with depression and paranoid schizophrenia.
KOJO NNAMDIA play, currently running at the Mosaic Theater in D.C., focuses on the final night of Donny Hathaway's life, and tries to make sense of the man and his music. That play, "Twisted Melodies," runs at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in D.C. through this Sunday. Here to talk with us about the show is Kelvin Roston, Jr. He is the playwright and star of "Twisted Melodies." Thank you so much for joining us.
KELVIN ROSTONI really appreciate you having me here. Thank you.
NNAMDIYou both wrote and star in this production. How did this play come about?
ROSTONWell, years ago, like, 2007 -- I'm born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, where Donny Hathaway grew up. And I was working at the St. Louis Black Repertory Company, and that's where I got my theater training. And Ron Himes, the founding artist and director of that theater company, decided that he was going to do a series of one-person shows. And he called it his I Stand Alone series, and he already knew people who had one-person shows that were successful. But he also asked his interns to come up with ideas for a show.
ROSTONNow, at this time I graduated from an internship program, but he asked me to do it, too. And, you know, at first I was resistant to it, because, you know, I didn't consider myself a writer at the time. However, he challenged me to go ahead and do it. So, I've always been a musician. I played for my grandfather's church, and so I knew it was going to be something with music. The title "Psychology with Genius" actually popped in my head immediately. And I knew that I wanted to -- my three favorite artists were Donny Hathaway, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. So, I was going to write the show on the genius of their music.
ROSTONAnd Ron Himes told me, there's no way you're going to be able to handle all three of them, so you've got to pick one. And once I started doing the research of the three, though I didn't initially plan to write a show talking about mental illness, it was actually the mental illness of Donny Hathaway that drew me to him. Because I've grown up with family members close to me who suffer from mental illness. My mother suffers from mental illness. So, you know, it was familiar. So, that's how the relationship between Donny Hathaway and I started. And then it just grew from there.
ROSTONFast-forward to 2015, I moved to Chicago. So, you know, Donny Hathaway was born in Chicago, raised in St. Louis. I was born and raised in St. Louis, and now live in Chicago. And we're both Libras, by the way, Libra nation. Anyway, 2015, Sam Roberson, who was the artistic director of Congo Square Theatre Company, caught wind of my show and asked to see it. And I had a DVD for him to see. After he watched it, he asked me, what's the point? And I didn't understand at first, but he asked me why I wrote it. And I explained just what I explained now. My mother suffers from mental illness, and it's something very important to me. And he told me that's the point, so let's not beat around the bush. Let's talk about mental illness.
ROSTONSo, I took “Psychology of a Genius,” tore it up, rewrote it, new stories, studied paranoid schizophrenia, and decided to look at mental illness through the eyes of Donny Hathaway.
NNAMDIDonny Hathaway died, I realize now, just about 40 years ago.
NNAMDIFor people like me, it seems like just yesterday. But for a whole lot of people who may not have known much about Donny Hathaway, tell us a little bit about Donny Hathaway. You mentioned you started out in the church. He did, too. He was a child prodigy, wasn't he?
ROSTONYes, he was. At three years old, they called him Little Donny Pitts. And he was going on tour with his grandmother, a great St. Louis gospel singer by the name of Martha Pitts, also called her Martha Crumwell. But he would go on tour with his grandmother as Little Donny Pitts, dubbed the nation's youngest gospel singer. So, they would, you know, go around town, go around the country, singing. You know, he was amazing at the tender age of three, just singing his little heart away.
ROSTONAnd, you know, then later on, being, you know, on the piano, of course, they spotted that genius early and nurtured that. And, you know, then continued on through school until he...
NNAMDIComposer, arranger. But let's cut to the chase. Donny Hathaway, Washingtonians feel like Donny Hathaway belongs to us.
ROSTONI understand that.
NNAMDI(laugh) He had a very special relationship with Washington. Tell our listeners what that relationship was.
ROSTONSo, Donny Hathaway went to Vashon High School in St. Louis, Missouri. And because of his genius, you know, as a composer and a musician, he earned a full scholarship to Howard University here in Washington, D.C. And he was there, and once the city caught wind of him, (laugh) it was no stopping. You know, if you watch the “Unsung” on Donny Hathaway, you hear the people talking, you know, who went to -- you know, the big music people who were at Howard already. You know, they were talking about, who's this new guy? Have you heard this new dude? Have you heard?
ROSTONSo, yeah, Donny came and just started making waves. I mean, you know, you can't hear him and not feel him, you know. There's just something spiritual about him and his voice and, you know, even just what comes through his fingers. He didn't have to sing a single word, and him playing the piano can just touch your soul. So, yeah...
NNAMDIAnd this is also where he met his best-known collaborator, Roberta Flack.
ROSTONAbsolutely, at Howard University, and his wife, Eulaulah Hathaway. He met her, also, at Howard University. So, yeah, I can understand why Washington, D.C...
NNAMDIWhy we feel like we take ownership of him.
NNAMDIHave you learned anything as a result of doing the show here about how people here feel about him and his relationship to the District?
ROSTONOh, yeah. (laugh) Absolutely. So, of course, I have a section in the -- the director of the show, Derrick Sanders, is a Howard alumni. Samuel Roberson, who was the first director of the show in Chicago, a Howard alum. My wife is actually a Howard alum. So, I've been inundated -- actually, in the show, I talk about, you know, Donny saying that Howard was the only school he ever wanted to go to. Now, that's actually from me. Howard was the only school I ever wanted to go to. However, I got all the money to go to St. Louis University. So, I had to go where money took me.
ROSTONSo, every time I walk the campus it's, like, wow, what if. But, you know, I've been inundated with tales from Howard. So, actually being here -- and I have a section in the show, you know, him talking about his time at Howard and how he met Eulaulah and how he met Roberta Flack, and things like that. But actually being in D.C. and, you know, when you actually say HU and then you get the resounding -- you know, it's quite a different atmosphere here in D.C. than anywhere else.
NNAMDIOne aspect of the show that I found puzzling, because I never knew this, was when he talked about Roberta never really understanding his feelings for her.
ROSTONYes. So, there's speculation, when there's any duo, male-female -- you know, Marvin Gaye, Tammy Terrell and, you know, any duos like that. And so, you know, in my research, of course, there's nothing that definitively says, of course, that Donny was in love with Roberta Flack, or vice versa. But there are a few articles that allude to different things. And I'm, you know, writing a piece of drama.
NNAMDI(overlapping) Yeah, some creative license there.
ROSTONYou know, you had to pick -- you know, some. I mean, there were some articles that said some things directly opposite of the vague -- you know, there's a lot of vague information about Donny Hathaway, you know, about his life. There's not many videos that you can see of him actually speaking, talking. There's only a few recordings of him, you know, interviews. So, you know, you have to really search for things. And you'll find some things -- you know, there was an article when I first started researching, an interview of Roberta Flack's son that said some information alluding to that. So, you know, I just used...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Their feelings.
ROSTON...yeah, so I just used information that I had.
NNAMDI(overlapping) Let's talk about mental illness. Donny Hathaway was diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. He also grappled with bouts of depression. You have mentioned in the past how little the black community talks candidly about mental health now. You just mentioned your mother. My brother suffered with mental illness. The subject was even more taboo in the '60s and the '70s, wasn't it?
ROSTONYes, absolutely. I'd like to say that, in general, the, you know, African Americans have had to work hard to, you know, survive. You know, we have to be strong. And, you know, let's just talk about my mother. My mother, as a single mother, had to concentrate on being a mother. So, generally, the things that you're dealing with personally, you have to push that down so you can continue to push forward when you don't really have a lot of push in you, you know. And I feel like that's the general story for African Americans in America.
ROSTONYou know, we have to continue to push forward and be strong, in spite of whatever personal things we may be dealing with. So, in general, we don't talk about those things, because we have to keep the strong front up, if you will. I like to say that there is a level of generational PTSD that the African American community deals with. So, we generally -- especially back in the day -- I remember my great grandmother, you know, when I would try to get information from her. You know, she was born in 1914 so we, of course, had a plethora of information. But once you get so far back, she says, why do we want to talk about bad things?
ROSTONYou know, so we generally...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Got to interrupt you, because we don't have a lot of time. Michelle sent us a Tweet she wrote after seeing the show: "Twisted Melodies" is an especially powerful play to see during National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. Kelvin Roston gives an engrossing and riveting performance, and sings beautifully. I agree.
NNAMDIHere is Dilabian in Washington, D.C. Dilabian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DILABIANHello. Thank you so much for having this program. I have been intimately involved with the National Alliance on Mental Illness D.C. since 2010. I go to their meetings every Wednesday from 7:00 to 9:00 at 422 8th Street Southeast. They are wonderful. It is a mixture of people of all ages. We've had high school. I am a senior citizen. We are people with an illness and people, like myself, the mom of someone who has mental illness. We work together to deal with recovery. How do you live with it and help your family member or the person who is your best friend?
DILABIANAnd a person who's in denial, how do you help them find help for themselves? Please, if you -- please come to our meetings. Come next Thursday, July 25th, to meet with us at Del Frisco's Grill at 1201 Pennsylvania Avenue. It will be an opportunity for you to join this movement to deal with stigma in the black and all communities together.
NNAMDIThank you very much, Dilabian. Carlos wrote to us on Facebook: "Twisted Melodies" is one of the best shows I've seen all season. I've seen it twice, and will likely catch it again. I've heard audiences shout, cheer, sob and relate to subject matter that seems so relevant even today. What about his life is it that touches so many? And there is audience participation in this show. Tell us how you do that. (laugh)
ROSTONWell, so, you know, there's a moment in the show that I like to say at the beginning is a European Theater with a fourth wall. And for anybody that doesn't know that that means, you know, you're not engaging with the audience. You're in your own space and we have this invisible fourth wall. But then I break that down, and the audience becomes part of the story. The whole point is to take the audience on the journey with Donny, as opposed to allowing them to just be separate onlookers.
ROSTONAnd we do that by, you know, letting them be his muses, and then, you know, they get to join in one of the songs, you know. So, we just have fun.
NNAMDIYou mean, even on stage, when he seems to be embattled by all kinds of forces, he has these friends.
NNAMDIIt's the audience.
NNAMDIThat's the audience.
NNAMDIThat was absolutely fascinating to me. I want to read a quote from the Chicago Tribune review of "Twisted Melodies." They said, quote, "Roston clearly decided that it was the end of Hathaway's life that explained the man." Can you talk about why you focused on that day of his life?
ROSTONWell, I mean, truthfully, my mother had attempted to commit suicide a time or two. And, you know, as an adult -- even though as a child, I didn't necessarily know what was going on, as an adult, when we had conversations about it, you know, I realized that she was trying to put everything in order. So, that's what actually came to me when I was trying to, you know, write this first iteration of this show.
ROSTONIf Donny Hathaway, in his mind, already knew what he was going to do, what would he want to know, what would he want to clear up before he did it? And that's why I came up with, okay. So, let's make this his last day, and him trying to figure out, why do people call me a genius, you know, when I feel like I'm just pouring music through me? Like, if I sing a gospel song and I play a gospel song, is that genius, or is that just God speaking through me? So, that was how I came up, initially, for his last day.
NNAMDIWell, I think what you really hit on is what all of those of us who were alive when Donny Hathaway was still performing, that was the thing that we wondered the most: what happened on that night that caused it to happen? So, your focus there was entirely appropriate. I’m afraid we're just about out of time. Kelvin Rosten, Jr. is the playwright and star of "Twisted Melodies." It's at Mosaic Theater through Sunday, the 21st. Mosaic is, of course, at the Atlas Performing Art Center in D.C. right now. It plays through this Sunday. Thank you so much...
NNAMDI...for joining us, and good luck to you. And let's hear "A Little Bit of Love," from Donny Hathaway.
NNAMDILove Donny Hathaway. That’s it for the show today. Our segment on smoking regulations in the region was produced by Kayla Hewitt. And our segment on "Twisted Melodies" was produced by Maura Currie. You can find a playlist of our favorite Donny Hathaway songs at kojoshow.org. And don't forget to meet us back here tomorrow for the Politics Hour. We'll be talking with Maryland General Assembly Delegate Alonzo Washington, who represents Prince Georges County, as well as with Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, about a recent poll showing the majority of Americans don't favor D.C. statehood. Until then, thank you for listening. Go see "Twisted Melodies." I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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