BWW Review: THIS BITTER EARTH at Theater Alliance
Write what you know, authors are often advised. And "This Bitter Earth," a vivid tale from prolific playwright Harrison David Rivers reflects a partnership between a back writer and a white activist in Minnesota that is very similar to his own.
That means vivid details and contemporary touches that add immediacy to its tale as well as an undergirding of emotion. What solidifies a production of the piece by the Theatre Alliance are the terrific performances by its central couple, played with extra life by Justin Weaks and Noah Schaefer.
The love story between the two characters, directed with vibrancy and wisdom by Otis Ramsey-Zöe, is told in nonlinear chapters - their meeting, courting, struggles and demise are shuffled in such a way to add literary complexity. One crucial scene is repeated to reveal additional information each time.
This keeps the play anything but rote, but it also messes with the notions of linear order of events; that Schaefer's excitable character Neil is an activist has one reviewing key dates of recent history that's reflected. Did Freddie Gray's death in Baltimore happen before the Charleston church shooting? (Yes, it turns out, by only by three months in 2015).
Neil being a Black Lives Matter activist causes some friction at home since he is white and his black partner is frankly not very politically active. "You accuse me of my white guilt," Neil says at one crossroads, "But what about your apathy?"
Instead, Weaks' writer character Jesse is steeped in his own work and writing, dreaming of a black culture where its leading lights mingle freely, and navigating his own demons and doubts.
As such, "This Bitter Earth" is a compendium of prominent black writers from James Baldwin and Langston Hughes to Lorraine Hansberry and especially Essex Hemphill, the poet and activist whose work is quoted freely, with a poetry and urgency that clearly inspires Rivers' work. (And as Hemphill did a lot of his important work in D.C. in the 80s before his death in 1995, this is a good spot to spark a revival of his work).
Music plays a big role in the play, too, with Jesse replaying the Dinah Washington song that gives the play its title, but also a lot heard from contemporary artists, as well as classic cuts from Sam Cooke to Gloria Gaynor. They're used not so much place-setters, but fully integrated into the play. (Still sound designer Justin Schmitz should find a way to tamp down the white noise static between tunes that robs the play of silence).
And maybe it's intended as part of the layered look of a realistic couple, but Jesse spends time early in the play describing a balance problem since childhood; yet the moves in these dance portions are very much on point.
Th other essential choreography is intimacy (conducted by Dane Figueroa Edidi); a bed is big part of the 360 degree set (by Brian Gillick; with pinpoint lighting by John D. Alexander) that is their shared apartment. Yet sex is not the point, though they strip to underwear at times; love is.
As if to emphasize the intimacy, the portals on two sides of the stage are covered in effective projections (by Nitsan Scarf) of eyes, lips and hands.
Gay black love isn't depicted much on stage; interracial gay love less so. But more than portray it, Rivers' work analyzes it, with key details of meeting the others' families, and thoughtful considerations about why black men grow up so tough, "because maybe gentle gets you killed."
Black love is a central theme in this season's work at the mighty Theatre Alliance, according to artistic director Raymond O. Caldwell; most shows will be followed by conversations. But the play itself is so strong, and its production so solid and richly engrossing, it provides a lot to talk about.
Running time: One hour, 40 minutes; no intermission.
"This Bitter Earth" is presented through March 22 by Theater Alliance at the Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Place SE. Tickets available online.