Forty years after his life abruptly ended at the age of 33, Donny Hathaway’s reputation rests on a small but stellar body of work. His 1970 debut, Everything Is Everything, is a genre-straddling soul classic, and his two album-length collaborations with his close friend and Howard University alum Roberta Flack are nearly as indelible.
Then there’s his 1972 LP Live, which is the album most vividly brought to mind by Twisted Melodies, Kelvin Roston Jr.’s absorbing 90-minute solo dramatization of the final night of Hathaway’s life. Substantial call-and-response participation from the audience animates the album, an amalgam of two concerts performed on opposite coasts, from a period when Hathaway’s brilliance as a singer and imagination as an arranger were in full flower. Press night of Mosaic Theater Company’s production of Twisted Melodies, with a vocal contingent of Howard grads and faculty in the house, was like that, too. But even without the alchemical effect that can result when a demonstrative audience rewards a performer’s energy with their own, Twisted Melodies is an experience worth seeking out.
A 15-year passion project of Roston’s, Twisted Melodies is set in the musican’s hotel room at Essex House in New York City during Hathaway’s final hours. By 1979, five years had passed since Hathaway had released any new music. Hospitalizations for paranoid schizophrenia had interrupted his career, and the disease had also severely strained his relationships with Flack and with his spouse, Eulaulah Vann. The variety of antipsychotic medications Hathaway had been prescribed each came with their own terrifying side effects—for example, muscle cramping so severe he found it almost impossible to move.
Roston, an artistic associate at Chicago’s Congo Square Theatre Company, is more natural and relaxed as a singer than as an actor. But his depiction of Hathaway’s fraying mental and emotional state on the night he leapt from a 15th story window is nevertheless harrowing. His frequent returns to the keyboard to punctuate his monologues with song come as a relief.
While Roston is accompanied by backing tracks on a few numbers, it still sounds like there’s a live band backstage, a credit to the precision of sound designer Christopher M. LaPorte’s mixing. This technical excellence extends throughout the production, for which Mosaic partnered with Congo Square, Baltimore Center Stage, and the Apollo Theater. Mike Tutaj’s subtle-then-striking video projections create the effect of a menacing shadow stalking Hathaway around his room before climaxing in a perspective-bending window-leap effect that recalls the parts of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark that actually worked.
The production value is secondary to the music, of course. Roston’s performances of songs Hathaway in most cases did not write, but interpreted unforgettably—Van McCoy’s “Giving Up”; Reggie Lucas and James Mtume’s “The Closer I Get to You,” which Flack and Hathaway recorded together for Flack’s Blue Lights in the Basement album after healing their long estrangement, are but two examples—are reason enough to go. When Roston breaks off from these songs before they’re finished, we feel the tragedy of Hathaway’s final years, a period of suffering with brief interludes of ecstasy.
To July 21 at 1333 H St. NE. $20–$68. (202) 399-7993. mosaictheater.org.