Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
This Bitter Earth
"You're an 'activist?," Jesse skeptically asks the "cute" white guy he meets at a New York City Black Lives Matter rally. What caught his attention was not cuteness, but hearing the young white guy reciting a poem by the gay African-American poet Essex Hemphill.
How is it, Jesse wonders, that a rich white guy came to memorize a poem by the obscure niche author who had inspired Jesse to write? Sheepishly, Neil reports how he came to know what he knows and be what he is. He did not set out to be an activist, but rather "activism" found him. He could not look away from the carnage of African-American bodies. He felt he had do something.
This Bitter Earth tells a story about race and love in the United States in the early 21st century. Jesse and Neil belong to different demographics, and their relationship is imbalanced in other ways. Jesse is far more self-aware and he seems to understand Neil far better than Neil understands himself. And Jesse tolerates what he sees as Neil's naiveté about the world. He is less tolerant of Neil's nagging regarding what Neil perceives as Jesse's "inaction" regarding police violence and racism (why doesn't he show up?). Neil challenges Jesse: "You're a double minority!" Neil responds: "I'm living my life. What more do you want?" Neil cannot perceive how, if you're a young gay African-American male (who is also a writer), "just living [your] life" is an act of courage and resistance.
Jesse withholds his trust for a very long time, but not because Neil is white. All of Jesse's romantic relationships have been with white men, he tells us in one of the many "direct address" passages that connect the two-person scenes. It's not that he's not attracted to African-American men. It has to do with the "hyper-masculinity." White men seem less afraid to "be soft." Then it hits him: the sobering recognition that this is just one more effect of historical oppression, and another aspect of white privilege that white men (at least, some of them) have the option to be "soft" in a way that is denied to African-American men.
In Jesse, Rivers gives us a character who is slow to give away his heart. He is especially worried about being used. This is also likely the explanation for why he doesn't share his writing with Neil until fairly late in their relationship. We see him holding his notebook close to his chest to prevent Neil from seeing it when he walks by. And this happens when they have already been together for over a year and have relocated to Minnesota"for your career," Neil reminds Jesse (Neil does not have a career; he has a trust fund).
Neil is upset when he invites his BLM buddies over to the house and Jesse doesn't show up. We suspect it is because Neil wants to show off that he has an African-American boyfriendand Jesse does not feel like being shown off. There are always questions raised when one sees (in drama or in real life) a white activist for African-American causes. Perhaps there is some self-interested or self-centered hidden motivation; perhaps also there is a sort of racism in someone seeing himself or herself as "the white savior." But while skepticism is natural, one should also understand (as playwright Harrison David Rivers clearly does) the complexity of human motivation: that actions can be both altruistic and self-interested or performative. In Neil, Rivers has created a character whose commitment to stopping the slaughter of black bodies is honest and profound (after one police shooting, Neil reports to Jesse that he can barely keep himself from falling apart, or "wanting to kill" someone in retaliation).
One of the things that makes Rivers' writing so remarkable is how gradually he brings us to understand what a couple like Jesse and Neil are up against. It's not that the burdens they face as a couple are different in quality so much as quantity. One of the things the play gets across is just how much the racial difference and all that implies multiples the kind of challenges that will be encountered. More subtly, the play lead us to ask: Is the desire to have the person you love see the world in a way identical with your own reasonable? There are so many times in this play where the tension between the two men becomes so raw that we can't help but thinking it can't hold. The weight of their differences, their varied family histories, the power imbalances, and the violence outside, finds its way into the room and it almost tears them apart.
When words fail, the two men find one another again through physical intimacy. Their bed is a space of freedom and moral refuge. Wilks manages through his staging to communicate that the love shared here is transcendent. The acting throughout is amazing. Through Rivers' brilliant writing, Neil and Jesse come across as fully realized individuals whose lives, emotions, and attachments seem more real than our own.
The projections (including regular appearances of flashing red lights) remind us again and again that their lives together are insecure. For all the love they generate, the one-room studio cannot hold out the cold and violent world. When the violence hits close to home, Neil is terrified. "I worry about you," he tells Jesse when the latter returns from grocery shopping. Jesse quips that he's not going to get killed "at Whole Foods." Of course, it's only when the two men allow themselves to let down their guard when tragedy strikes, though not in the way expected.
The play ends in 2015. Of course, the next year, 2016, brought the presidential campaign and election. For people like Neil and Jesse, it has only gotten harder and more dangerous.
This Bitter Earth, through May 20, 2018, at Penumbra Theatre, 270 North Kent Street, St. Paul MN. For tickets and information, call 651-224-3180 or visit penumbratheatre.org.
Directed by Talvin Wilks