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“Twisted Melodies” Highlights the Life of Donny Hathaway

Photo by Julieta Cervantes

The Apollo Theater graciously asked me to come and review a play they are featuring entitled “Twisted Melodies” about the life of Donny Hathaway.

Hathaway was a musical genius plagued by mental illness in the form of paranoid schizophrenia. His diagnosis was severe and medicine only served to exacerbate the illness. In fact it retarded him, taking him on a journey of frenzied highs and devastating lows.

The causes of schizophrenia are complicated and still being researched. There is some thought that heredity may play a role. Research does show that genetics may deem who is more likely to develop schizophrenia or other similar mental illnesses that produce hallucinations or cause the sufferer to separate from reality. A viral illness in childhood could affect the way the brain developed. Also, the brain’s neurotransmitters, which are the key to nerve cell communication may have caused some sort of imbalance with communication within the brain. Drug use, as well as lack of oxygen to the brain are also factors that could lead to schizophrenia.

Harlem’s Apollo Theater premiered this one-man play under the directorship of Derrick Sanders, the lighting of Alan C. Edwards and the marvelous stage design of Courtney O’Neill.

“Twisted Melodies,” written by and starring brilliant singer and performer Kelvin Roston, Jr., imagined the final days of Donny Hathaway. Kelvin was outstanding in the role, masterfully bringing to life the tormented soul of Donny Hathaway whose life and career was plagued with bouts of paranoid schizophrenia. Kelvin took the viewer inside the world of Donny Hathaway. He made you feel Donny and even sympathize with his plight as Donny tried to put together the jumbled pieces of his life.

Haunted by paranoia, voices, noises, high pitched frequencies, apparitions, shadows and ghosts locked in his mind, schizophrenia played havoc on Hathaway’s life, marriage, friendships and career which were often at a crossroad.

Mr. Roston takes the viewer through Hathaway’s early beginnings in gospel and later jazz, blues, and soul, and via character building episodes with his grandmother. He sang the hits Donny had with Roberta Flack “The Closer I Get to You” and “Where is the Love? which won them a Grammy in 1973. Hathaway’s hits included “This Christmas,” “Someday We’ll All Be Free” and “A Song for You.” Donny was both an arranger and studio musician for artists such as Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Staples Singers.

Roston was so masterful in his control of the stage, he began a song that so moved the men in the audience they became his impromptu backup singers. Their bass voices harmonizing so beautifully you felt like you were being taken to church. In fact, these audience members were so incredible they could have auditioned for the Apollo Talent Night and all won. Like a choir director, Roston never flinched. Leading the men on as if it were the most natural thing for the audience to become part of the play. It was a remarkable!

I was so impressed by this outstanding performance of a man who both suffered for and had great joy in his art. I encourage people to get their tickets since the play has a limited engagement. It runs from Thursday, May 30 to Sunday June 2nd. The Thursday and Friday shows are at 8:00 pm and the Saturday, June 1st show is at 3:00 and 8:00 pm. The play ends Sunday, June 2nd, with a 3:00 performance.

Donny Hathaway fell from the window of his 15th floor room at New York’s’ Essex House Hotel on January 13, 1979. He was 33. Given the hell he went through it would not be inconceivable that Donny committed suicide as ruled by the coroner. However, many of his family and friends suggest it was simply an accident.

Tickets for Twisted Melodies are available now at the Apollo Theater Box Office. Located at 253 West 125th St in Manhattan. Call: (212) 531-5305, and/or Ticketmaster at 1-800-745-3000 or online at

Go see “Twisted Melodies,” it is truly a great Apollo offering. I highly recommend it.

About the Author

Journalist and radio host, Deardra Shuler, has a background in publishing, theatre, concert promotion, producing and was the former PR chairman of FESPACO, an African film festival in Burkino Faso. She reviews books, plays, theater and movies. Her short story was published by Penquin Books in Aurielle Ford's book "Mystical Souvenirs." Deardra has her own blog under Writblog and writes for several African American publications in New York. She has a column and radio show in Sweden entitled Music Pastures. Her show Topically Yours is on the Blakeradio Network, Rainbow Soul. She also produces and facilitates other radio programs that she has brought to the BlakeRadio network.

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