BWW Review: Tender and Topical THIS BITTER EARTH in Regional Premiere at Penumbra Theatre
In this 50th anniversary year of the Loving vs. State of Virginia Supreme Court case that made interracial marriage legal in all 50 states, it is right that the renowned Penumbra Theatre, which puts questions of social justice at the center of its artistic mission, should take up gay rights. THIS BITTER EARTH centers on a love affair between two men, one black, one white.
Both characters are educated and passionate and charming, especially as played by Jon-Michael Reese and Kevin Fanshaw, whose onstage comfort with each other helps ease the audience through this one hour and forty minute show with no intermission. Veteran director Talvin Wilks brings a sure hand to the pacing and staging.
Jesse Howard (Reese) is an emerging black playwright, who grew up in Kansas in a mostly white community and graduated from majority white colleges. He meets Neil Finley-Darden (Fanshaw), a white activist and (we eventually learn) a trust-fund baby, at a New York City rally protesting the death of Trayvon Martin. Their point of connection is that both can quote Essex Hemphill, the D.C. based black poet and activist who died of AIDS in 1995. The play jumps around in time and geography, charting Jesse's and Neil's relationship from start to end, as they flirt and make love and fight and make up, all in the context of the racial tensions of our present times, and ending in the Twin Cities, where the couple relocates for Jesse's career. Make no mistake: this is theater about here and now.
That being the case, it is regrettable but not surprising that violence erupts both inside and outside Jesse and Neil's relationship.
Playwright Harrison David Rivers is having a big year. This is his third full production in the Twin Cities this season. He wrote the book for FIVE POINTS, the musical that recently premiered at Theater Latté Da, set in 1863 in the New York City neighborhood where dance battles pitted an Irishman against a black man-a crucial moment in what would eventually emerge in the 1920s as tap dancing. He collaborated with Somali immigrant writer Ahmed Ismail Yusuf on CRACK IN THE SKY at the History Theater, which tells of Yusuf's journey to becoming a writer and an American. Rivers is also workshopping new pieces at the famed Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis, where he is a Core Writer and member of the Board of Directors.
This script is clearly the most personal of the three penned by Rivers that I've seen fully staged this year, and it foregrounds his rare ability to generate light by bringing lyricism into contact with political content. THIS BITTER EARTH offers a careful, warm, and tender dissection of how intimacy is built despite the many challenges facing this pair.
Rivers also provides multiple windows to consider masculinity, both toxic and not so. These include Jesse's efforts to find his voice as a writer without "dying of blackness" and in full awareness that "maybe gentle gets you killed." Neil's efforts to manage his position of privilege and find a legitimate way to be an ally and activist is one that, I wager, many have contemplated in the mostly white audience I shared the theater with on a weeknight performance.
Kudos to the trio of designers (Maruti Evans, sets; Marcus Dilliard, lights; and Kathy Maxwell, projections) who theatricalize the way events in the outer world intrude into the bedroom shared by our protagonists. The white walls surrounding the realistically spare set provide fine surfaces for a variety of treatments in various sizes and locations as well as precise spotlighting for many of the critical monologues that dot the script. Their visual efforts are ably underscored by Kevin Springer's sound design. Rivers is well served by the team that has come together to mount this regional premiere. I hope this play sees more stagings around the country.
THIS BITTER EARTH runs through May 20 in Saint Paul.
Photo credit: Allen Weeks