Music as Medicine: Beethoven and Misfortune Cookies

Ernest Harden Jr. as Kabin Thomas photo by Rob Flores

Ernest Harden Jr. as Kabin Thomas photo by Rob Flores

Playwright Joni Ravenna’s “Beethoven and Misfortune Cookies” has returned to Los Angeles at the Odyssey Theatre after a stint in the Midwest. With the exception of the unfortunate title—a tongue in cheek offering to a delightful play of gravitas—Ravenna has added a gem to her writing credits.

There is little more satisfying than a story in which a seemingly insignificant line or circumstance that develops the character turns out to be a significant piece of the plot. Like Beethoven’s structural masterpieces, Ravenna has written a play wherein motifs and refrains underscore the integrity of the work as a whole.

Kabin Thomas played by the charismatic Ernest Harden Jr, who like the real-life Thomas grew up in Detroit, begins by introducing himself to his art appreciation class. Today’s subject is Beethoven, who grew up with an abusive alcoholic father and a mother who was a Moor. Thomas uses this last fact to posture that Beethoven, like himself, had African ancestry and was therefore the first “soul musician.” When Thomas introduces the class to Billy Holiday, we discover that seemingly droll detail — the subject of Beethoven’s genetic heritage — becomes meaningful. Thomas’ lecture on Holiday’s classic version of “Strange Fruit” and a picture of a lynching to accompany the song contribute to Thomas being fired from the university.

Harden’s portrayal of Ernest Thomas ran hot and cold the evening of previews. He did not seem entirely comfortable with the set or props, which will surely be remedied during the play's run. And yet even amongst a couple of technical sound interruptions, Harden worked through the hiccups to find Thomas patiently awaiting him: ingratiating, passionate, and driven to live.

Photo by Rob Flores

Photo by Rob Flores

While the circumstances of Thomas’ story unfold, Ravenna doles out pieces of the protagonist’s background, namely learning from his mother at age thirteen that his father committed suicide after battling schizophrenia—all pieces of information that build to the play's crescendo: Thomas himself struggles with the disease. The revelation explains in retrospect why Thomas has spent his life one-upping his old man. His father was a coast guard so Thomas became a marine; his father was a schoolteacher so Thomas became a professor; his father played the violin, an instrument easily broken, so Thomas chose the tuba. Thomas has blotted out the memory of why his mother chose to tell the truth about his father’s death until he is forced to remember it was when he was thirteen years old that Thomas’ mother first discovered evidence of Thomas’ genetic inheritance.

Unconsciously Thomas’ life choices, from his profession to playing the tuba, were a concerted effort to fight the disease that led to the demise of his father at age forty-three. Neither Thomas nor the audience know if he will continue to one-up his father and live to see his forty-fourth birthday. Yet, in retrospect, the very examples Thomas taught in class at the beginning of the play --from Beethoven’s abusive father to Billy Holiday’s unavenged rapes -- were examples of the artist using misfortune (I imagine where Ravenna’s title comes from) to feed their art and triumph over adversity. Thomas, inevitably, must do the same.

Get your tickets: "Beethoven and Misforune Cookies"

The Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda., LA, CA 90025

Sun, Nov 17 – Sun, Dec 15
Sundays 5:30 pm