For Kelvin Roston Jr. the journey to Baltimore’s Center Stage started at the church.
“I’m a church kid. I wanted to play the drums so I asked if I could take music lessons. He was like, ‘You sure can!’ The first day I walked into the room, there was a piano,” says Roston.
Kelvin Roston Jr. star of the one-man show “Twisted Melodies. (Courtesy Photo/centerstage.com)
That day, he was 5. Today, he is 38. Tonight, he will be the legendary musician and singer Donny Hathaway.
Roston is the star of the one-man show “Twisted Melodies.” The 90-minute show imagines Hathaway’s final night before his fall from a 15-story building in New York in 1979.
The actor’s ritual for “becoming” Hathaway starts where his pastor led him.
“I have a keyboard in my dressing room. I put on my headphones and just start playing. I’ll sit down and put on a playlist of Donny Hathaway songs. Once I start to get dressed, in my mind, he is starting to get ready for a show,” he says.
Roston was born and raised in Wellston—a small Black city on the northwest of Missouri—and comes from a musical family. His mother: a secretary and singer. His grandfather: a pastor and singer. His grandmother: “one of the super-soprano ladies.”
His mother, who raised him along with his three siblings, helped to nurture his acting early on when she sent him to Cardinal Ritter College Preparatory High School in Walnut Park, 5 miles from Wellston.
“She put us in all Catholic schools. They had theater programs. My first role was Martin Luther King,” Roston remembers with a laugh. “And my second role was a priest.”
After high school, Roston started working at an airline. His cousin—whom Roston convinced to get involved in theater during high school—moved to St. Louis to work for The Black Rep, an African-American theater founded in 1976. Roston started hanging around the theater and met the founder Ron Himes, who started putting him in readings and testing his voice. He was offered a production assistant job and quit his job at the airline. Roston says it was then, in his early 20s, that he realized, “I do want to be on that stage.”
The script for “Twisted Melodies,” originally titled “Psychology of a Genius,” is a product of a theater assignment he was given at The Black Rep. The assignment was to create a one-man 30-minute show and it took him two to three weeks to write. Roston knew Hathaway for some of his classic songs, such as “A Song For You,” “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” and “This Christmas,” but the assignment gave him a richer scope of Hathaway’s musical legacy.
“That’s when I learned that I didn’t know much about him,” he admits. “I learned all these other songs, and I was trying to figure out why people don’t play these songs?”
It has been over 10 years since the initial assignment. Roston left St. Louis for Chicago in 2008 to pursue his acting career. He took a job at the Navy Pier, but quickly got his first show within two weeks at the ETA Creative Arts Foundation. He later submitted his script to playwright festival Black Playwrights Initiative and performed it at The Black Ensemble Theater. He had a DVD of his performance and was able to get into the hands of the Congo Square Theater’s artistic director Sam Roberson.
It was Roberson who encouraged him to not just explore Hathaway’s music, but his mental illness. Hathaway battled paranoid schizophrenia and depression, which led to his apparent suicide. “My first version of the show just touched on it,” Roston says.
That simple shift in focus changed the entire tone of the script. Soon after, Roberson and Roston went to a clinical psychologist in Chicago to understand the mental illness. “She talked to some of her clients and they were on board. They gave us permission to watch some of their sessions, and some of them came to our office at Congo Square and told their stories,” Roston recalls.
The show has seen two runs at Congo Square, one run at The Black Rep, and now one at Center Stage. Roston met Center Stage’s artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah at Congo Square’s First Annual Gala. Kwei-Armah flew Roberson and Roston up to preview the show and it was all rehearsals from there. Some of Donny Hathaway’s family—his aunt, her daughter, and granddaughter—even came to see the show when it ran in Chicago.
This show is much bigger than theater. Before we sat for our interview in the renovated lobby of Center Stage, Roston said a young girl who suffers from mental illness hugged him and thanked him for the show. In every career, he said, there has to be a reason that a person is in it. For Roston, that reason lies in the answer to the central question: Why am I here?
His answer: “I’m here to deliver a message. It has always been prophesied on me that I was supposed to be preacher. I always was like no, not me. This is ministering in a different way. Maybe, I’m doing what they always said I was going to do. I’m preaching without being the preacher.”
‘Twisted Melodies’ is currently showing at Center Stage. For information on the schedule and tickets, visit: https://www.centerstage.org/plays-and-events/mainstage/twisted-melodies.