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Intimacy and allyship crash and converge in Harrison David Rivers’s moving drama, This Bitter Earth, presented by InterAct Theatre Company under the direction of Tyrone L. Robinson.
Jesse is a Black playwright from Kansas who, if not apolitical, has little to no interest in engaging directly in activism. Neil, his boyfriend, is white, grew up in moneyed Brooklyn, and is devoted to Jesse—and to Black Lives Matter. They meet in 2012 at the Million Hoodie March in New York’s Union Square to protest the murder of Trayvon Martin. Jesse sees Neil mount the statue of George Washington and recite “For My Own Protection” by Essex Hemphill, Jesse’s favorite poet, and the inspiration for his thesis. We follow the two men’s relationship over the course of three years, from their first date, to meeting their parents, to moving to St. Paul, Minnesota, for Jesse’s work.
Throughout this time, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement is both a background and a source of conflict: Neil steadily deepens his involvement, while Jesse resists joining. Rivers presents non-linear snapshots of their relationship colliding with the murders of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and the congregants of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
This Bitter Earth arrives in Philadelphia five years after its debut in San Francisco. Despite premiering in 2017 and taking place between 2012 and 2015, the play still packs a wallop and feels as urgent as ever in 2022. Rivers’s questions of how white people show up, or fail to, for Black people, particularly in intimate relationships, and how Black people find the will to create, love, and live when confronted with constant fear and trauma, remain current.
For today’s viewers, the play’s references to Sarah Palin seem almost quaint, but knowing that the murders continued, even after the country reached another tipping point in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd in the community where the play takes place, is gutting and infuriating.
A couple to cheer for
Yet Rivers still finds many opportunities for Jesse and Neil to share joy, laughter, and beauty, which make the stakes for the survival of their relationship so strong. These moments include a jubilant and life-affirming dance to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” on an early date at Jesse’s favorite bar, and when he reads to Neil a sample from his play, describing a dream of his literary and artistic heroes at a party, dressed in costume as one another: “Everyone was living! Everyone was fabulous!”
Robinson and his team, including actors David Bazemore as Jesse and Gabriel W. Elmore as Neil, approach the material with nuance and depth. Bazemore captures Jesse’s vulnerability and prickliness, stemming from his desire to love and be loved, and yet needing to protect himself as a Black man in a predominantly white world. He is also a warm and soulful anchor in a series of direct addresses that provide a through-line for the play’s collage-like structure, which is ultimately an evocation of coping with trauma. Elmore does not shy away from Neil’s centering himself in other people’s struggles, or failing to recognize his race and class privilege, but he also uncovers the character’s charm, disarming earnestness, and ability to get Jesse out of his shell.
A love story
Colin McIlvaine’s sleek, industrial-style set adroitly evokes a revolving series of urban apartments, streets, and bars in one space. Shannon Zura’s lighting and Larry Fowler’s soundscape give the piece a thoughtful moodiness. Katherine Fritz’s detailed but understated costumes speak to the different ways these men move in the world, from Jesse’s practical khakis to Neil’s skinny jeans.
Ultimately, This Bitter Earth is not a polemic, but a love story. Just as Jesse survives chronic vertigo and can feel the earth moving beneath him, the play urges us to hold on to those we love in the face of chaos, violence, and inhumanity. Or, as Jesse says in the words of Essex Hemphill, “Take care of your blessings.”
What, When, Where
This Bitter Earth. By Harrison David Rivers, directed by Tyrone L. Robinson. $17-$37. Through February 20, 2022 at the Proscenium at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks Street, Philadelphia. (215) 568-8079 or interacttheatre.org.
InterAct requires proof of Covid-19 vaccination with ID, and masks must be worn inside the theater.
The Proscenium at the Drake is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Companion seats and mobility and audiovisual-accessible seating are available. Seating requests should be made prior to showtime by calling the box office at 215-568-8079 or emailing [email protected].
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