A one-person show is always a slippery slope. It’s one person, alone on a stage, keeping the attention of an audience. Not everyone can pull it off. It’s more than a notion. The show has to have an interesting subject matter, some creativity, a good director and an even better actor.
Well, Joni Ravenna’s Beethoven & Misfortune Cookies has all of the above and more.
The show, which has one more performance, Sun., Dec. 15, during its current run at The Odyssey Theatre, stars Ernest Harden Jr. (The Jeffersons) and is directed by T.J. Castronovo. It is presented by The Odyssey Theatre and CRC Entertainment.
What makes this show so compelling is not only Harden’s performance, but also the fact that it’s a true story.
Harden tells the story of Kabin Thomas, a musician, who, for 11 years was a professor music at the University of Arkansas, but was removed for using foul language and showing a rather provocative and controversial picture.
Thomas, a native of Detroit, has led an interesting life. In 2002, he narrated The Sound of Dreams, the award-winning documentary by the UA’s Dale Carpenter, which told the story of several young people and their mentors during two weeks of rehearsals and performances.
Then, in 2006, Thomas, who had declined to travel the tenure path during his time at the UA, was removed for using “foul” language during his lectures.
It didn’t help that he also ran into trouble with the university after teaching a lesson about Abel Meeropol and his song, ‘Strange Fruit’ about the lynching of black folks in the south. The song was made famous by legendary performer, Billie Holiday. The lesson was accompanied by a now famous, but notorious, photograph of two, black, male, lynching victims.
That proved to be a temporary stumble in Thomas’ life. In the years since, he found several different ways to tell his stories, including a program on Fayetteville’s Community Access Television before moving out.
Thomas’ story is compelling. It’s dramatic. It’s intense.
When he came to Hollywood, he was cast in a reality TV show. That’s when he became aware that not only was he the same age as his now deceased father, (43), he also learned the truth about how his dad died.
The two-act play is a history lesson, a revelatory life’s lesson, a psychiatric session as well as a lesson in morality.
Harden grabs the audience at the beginning of the show by revealing (for some) the fact that Beethoven was black. He goes on to teach a lesson about the struggles of Beethoven, a composer of mixed European and Moorish ancestry who not only coped with hearing loss in his later years, but who also created his Ninth Symphony while deaf.
Harden has put his years of acting experience squarely on the stage and presented a stunningly honest and effective performance.
Castronovo’s direction makes good use of the stage. Castronovo, who was a regular on the TV series, Taxi, has directed several L.A. shows including Brooklyn, U.S.A., The Leopard, Campaign and Women in Shorts.
Harden, who was seen at the MET Theatre in Savage World and whose TV and film work includes Santa Barbara, White Mama and White Men Can’t Jump, confidently and easily maneuvers around the stage while effectively making valiant points.
A Detroit native himself, who studied theater at Michigan State University, in his latest offering Harden exhibits both his comedic and dramatic acting chops.
Partially set in a classroom and a psychiatrist’s office, Harden systematically takes his audience on a journey of self-discovery.
There is more to this show than just a professor who lost his job due to profanity and sensationalism. The story is engulfing and fully envelops the audience as does the music, which includes Moonlight Sonata, the haunting music of Beethoven (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Tr0otuiQuU), Lady Day’s Strange Fruit (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4ZyuULy9zs) and Marvin Gaye’s Inner City Blues (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X1uelY2SGmw).
Harden has the behemoth task of conveying both the academic and personal side of Thomas’ life. The audience hears about Thomas’ early childhood as well as the question of whether he suffers from mental illness. At times this emotional drama is gut-wrenching as Harden exposes Thomas’ inner demons, emotional turmoil and vulnerability, as well as the comparison to Beethoven who reportedly was frequently berated and beaten by his father. At times it's uncomfortable to watch as Thomas begins to unravel and even contemplates suicide.
Harden gives a warm and inviting performance as he commands the stage. With Harden at the helm, Beethoven & Misfortune Cookies is on solid ground.
Beethoven and Misfortune Cookies, The Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, CA; 5:30 p.m., Dec. 15; $20-$25; 323 960-4418 or www.Plays411.com/beethoven.