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St. Louis Black Repertory Theatre explores Donny Hathaway’s musical genius, mental illness

Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Kelvin Roston, Ron Himes and Joe Yancey discuss using theatre to create conversation about mental illness.

Singer-songwriter Donny Hathaway was born in Chicago but grew up in St. Louis. Known for songs like “The Ghetto” and “This Christmas,” Hathaway began singing in his grandmother’s church choir and playing the piano at age 3. Hathaway was a prolific musician but also grappled with mental illness throughout his life.

A play at the St. Louis Black Repertory Theatre, “Twisted Melodies,” delves into both the musical genius and mental illness struggles of Hathaway in a fictionalized journey through the last day of his life, before he was found having jumped from his 15th-floor hotel room in New York City. There will be discussions exploring mental health issues after some of the performances.

On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, Ron Himes, the founder and producing director of the Black Rep, and Kelvin Roston, Jr., the actor and playwright in this one-person play, joined the program to discuss the production. Joe Yancey, the executive director of Places for People, also joined the show.

The play is actually an expansion of a play that Roston wrote years prior while he was working in St. Louis at the Black Rep. He has since moved to Chicago. He said that the play was meant to both explore the life of Hathaway and shed light on the impact mental illness has on us all.

“I grew up with mental illness in my family,” Roston said. “That’s one of the things that I was familiar with, which drew me to Donny Hathaway as opposed to Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles or Prince … all musical geniuses. It became apparent that this subject does need to be in the limelight. I already had something, took it apart, re-wrote it and tried to focus more on the mental illness at that point.”

The play uses music from the course of Hathaway’s life to highlight different points about his mental illness — paranoid schizophrenia — through the lyrics of the songs. One that jumps to mind is “Voices Inside (Everything is Everything),” which figures prominently in the play.

Himes said that he’s learned how important it is for the Black Rep to present work that facilitates discussion about mental illness. Yancey, whose organization works to help people who face serious mental illnesses, said that such presenting such work is “critical.”

“It allows within a space safe an opportunity to get the conversation going, to start talking about the brain and the fact that the brain is part of the body,” Yancey said. “Like any other part of the body, the brain can have problems as well. Too often we see people as weak, that there is something wrong with you as a person. Getting that conversation going is critical because without good brain health or behavioral help, people will get physically sick as well.”

To Himes, a “safe space” means a shift in perspective.

“What makes the theater a safe space is that you take a play like this, or a play where we deal with gun violence or the drug epidemic and you take a neighborhood where everyone knows that house on the corner is the drug house … and nobody will talk about it,” Himes said. “But we’ll do a play and we’ll put that drug house on stage and then they’ll talk about that on stage.”

"They don't have to talk about themselves, the community specifically, but in the process they are. They are having that conversation." — Ron Himes, founder and producing director, the Black Rep

Himes said that, in a case like the drug house, audience members would talk about what people should do. Should they call the police? Should they have community meetings?

“In this case, they’ll talk about Donny’s schizophrenia, Donny’s actions, what Donny could have done, what people around him should have done, what kind of support Donny needed,” Himes said. “They don’t have to talk about themselves, the community specifically, but in the process they are. They are having that conversation.”

Related Event

What: The St. Louis Black Repertory Theatre presents “Twisted Melodies”

When: April 22- May 1, 2016

Where: Edison Theatre, 6465 Forsyth Blvd., 63105

More information.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.
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